Experimenting with the #HamRadio Wilderness Protocol

After the Titanic sunk in 1914, nations of the world required ships at sea to maintain a mandatory safety watch on certain radio frequencies in the event of emergency or distress. The Silence Periods took place four times an hour, twice each for voice and Morse code.

Silence periods are no longer required because technology has produced alternative automatic watch-keeping systems.

Just as Morse code was fading in the mid-1990s, the American Radio Relay League proposed the Wilderness Protocol as a way for hikers and campers to call for help in remote areas before mobile cell phone coverage became ubiquitous.

The idea is good, but, as Bob Witte writes, “overly complex for practical use.”

On a recent hike of the Shabbona Trail here in Illinois, I gave the Wilderness Protocol a try. Rather than listen at specific times, as the ARRL recommends, I maintained a continuous watch on 52.525 MHz, 146.52 MHz, 223.5 MHz, and 446.0 MHz.

I also monitored two strong repeaters located in Morris, Illinois.

Before my hike, I announced on the Illinois Ham email reflector when I would be hiking and where I would have my radio tuned. I admitted my low power radio would make simplex communication difficult, but asked people to call me anyway.

I worked four stations using the Morris repeaters but no one on the Wilderness Protocol simplex frequencies during my six hour hike.

I called CQ at the top and bottom of the hour on 52.525 MHz and 146.52 MHz, the two frequencies with the best chance of a band opening during the morning hours.

Either no one heard me, or no one was monitoring.

David Coursey has a practical critique of the protocol that I agree with.

Coursey writes,

If we promote ham radio as an emergency resource, it must be a dependable resouce, no disappointment of the public or fellow hams allowed. Especially when lives are at stake.

And if lives are really at stake, buy a SPOT or similar device and everyone — you, friends, family, even me — will sleep more soundly knowing you aren’t depending on ham help that is unlikely to be there when needed.

Food for thought.

Hiking the Shabbona Trail

My longest hike of the season so far has been the 16 mile Shabbona Trail between Channahon and Morris, Illinois.

The Shabbona Trail is in the heart of the 61-mile long Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor.

The Chief Shabbona Historial Trail was established on July 30, 1960 by Boy Scout Troop 25. The trail is nationally approved by the Boy Scouts of American and follows the paths that Shabbona was known to have walked. By 1963, over 10,000 scouts hiked the trail. Along the trail, you will see full-sized replicas of canal boats, locktender’s house, working stone locks, and fully restored stone aqueducts.

The habitat ranges from open prairie grasslands to dense woods. The Illinois River provides panoramic views in many areas. The trail is shaded in most areas by a variety of trees including walnut, oak, ash, maple, sycamore, hawthorn and cottonwood. You also see beaver, muskrat, mink, raccoon and deer from time to time.

Channahon State Park (Trail Head)


The Channahon State Park is the official trailhead of the Illinois & Michigan Canal State Trail. It became a state park in 1932, one year before the canal officially closed. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corp restored Lock 6, Lock 7 and the Locktender’s House.

McKinley Woods (Mile 3)


McKinley Woods is a 525-acre preserve operated by the Forest Preserve District of Will County. It is a diverse habitat of forest, prairie, wetland and riverfront. It is a favorite site for bird watchers, kayakers, and geocaching enthusiasts.

Dresden Lock (Mile 6)


The Dresden Lock is one of the most impressive man-made features along the Shabbona Trail. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the lock and dam complex includes an arced gravity dam, a spillway, nine Tainter gates, 18 headgates, and a section of fill dirt connecting the headgates to the embankment of the canal.

Aux Sable (Mile 8.25)


The Aux Sable access point contains three pieces of history right in the same area: Lock 8, the Locktender’s House, and the rebuilt Aux Sable Creek Aqueduct.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources maintains a primitive camping ground for approximately five tents. There is water and restroom facilities within walking distance.

Evergreen Cemetery (Mile 13.5)

Shabbona was a member of the Ottawa tribe before he became a chief within the Potawatomi in the 19th century. He died in Morris in 1859 at the age of 84. This granite boulder was placed on his gravesite in Evergreen Cemetary in 1903.


Stratton State Park (Mile 15.5)

Named after an Illinois governor, the William Stratton State Park was developed in 1959 as a boat access to the Illinois river.

Nettle Creek Aqueduct (Mile 16)

This may be the only time I get to see this aqueduct. Originally built in 1847, the state intends to demolish and remove both the bridge and aqueduct after a flood seriously damaged the site in 2012.  I wasn’t able to get a good photo because the place is a real mess.

Gebhard Woods State Park (Trail End)

Because the Nettle Creek Aqueduct was destroyed, I could not make it to Gebhard Woods.

The park belonged to the Grundy County Rod and Gun club, who purchased the land from the Gebhard family in 1934 for $1,500. The Rod and Gun Club developed a fish rearing pool on the property before donating the land to the state a few years later.

Distance: 16.51 miles
Total Time: 5:45
Average Pace: 21:15

Lessons from a 10 Mile Hike

The plan was to hike about 12 miles from Channahon State Park to the Theodore Marsh. I expected to complete the course in about three hours and be home in time for lunch with my family.

Unfortunately, things don’t always go as planned. This hike taught me a few lessons that I will carry forward on future hikes.

Illinois & Michigan Canal

The I&M Canal was the first complete water route from the east cost to the Gulf of Mexico. It connects Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River by way of the Illinois River. Today, the canal is a popular outdoor trail and follows the old towpath where mules and horses pulled barges until 1933.

This is what most of the canal looks like on the trail.

IMG_20150613_102908 IMG_20150613_085556

Except for mountain bikes and a stray runner or two, I had it all to myself.

About 2:15 into the hike, I left the I&M Canal and started a half-mile, 75 foot climb on paved road to the Rock Run.

Lesson 1: Heavy Snacks Weigh You Down

I knew the climb would be difficult, and planned to take a break at the top. I packed a PROBAR Meal, something I carry in my Red Cross GoKit. This particular PROBAR is a meal substitute, and, as I discovered, not something that gives you a quick energy boost. It sat on my stomach like a beached whale.

Lesson 2: Exposed Paved Paths are Not Your Friend

Back on the trail, I planned to bypass the leg that went behind Joliet Junior College. Not only would it shave four miles from my hike, going straight down Houbolt Road would get me back under the trees quickly where I could finish the hike.

For some reason, I stayed on the Rock Run Greenway (which isn’t green at this point). By the time I realized my mistake, I could feel my energy level plummet.

The next three miles were brutal. I had no shade and was chugging water at a rate that would leave me empty with miles to go.

20150613_112548 20150613_110200

It was at this point, I had had enough. I called my wife, who came and retrieved me.

Lesson 3: Use a Live Tracking App

Although I left a map, had a cell phone, and carry a hand-held amateur radio; had I fallen into trouble in a more remote part of the trail (it’s really not a remote trail, but parts are not easily accessible), it would be difficult to find me. Having a live GPS tracking app on my phone would be useful.

I’m going to experiment with different apps to see what works best.

Distance: 9.82 miles. Total time: 3:28. Average Pace: 21:16. Total Climb: 370.

Here is my RunKeeper activity log.

Stair Workout at Swallow Cliff

This beast is Swallow Cliff Falls near Palos Park, Illinois.

20150609_194624 20150609_195240 20150609_195058

It’s a 100-foot high bluff formed 12,000 years ago when glacial meltwater carved out the Sag Valley, leaving behind steep walls and a varied landscape of morainal hills and pothole lakes.

The Civilian Conservation Corp built 125 limestone stairs in the 1930s that lead to the top of a toboggan run. It’s a popular exercise destination for fitness buffs and casual walkers.

And it owned me as I spent 90 minutes over two days hauling myself up and down it for stair work.

Day 1 was tough. I made it up and down seven times with a 10 pound backpack. I don’t know what was worse about the experience: the two Polish supermodels who frolicked like gazelles, always passing me; or the three year old toddler who did the circuit 3 times with him mom.

My legs were wobbly when I stopped.

Day 2 was tougher. My calves were already tight and sore from the first day, but I pushed myself up and down 10 times with the same backpack.

It was awful; and I did it.

On Saturday, it’s a 5 hour hike along the Illinois & Michigan Canal.