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Hams Track Scouts as They Follow Lincoln's Footsteps


Every April, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Scout leaders retrace Abraham Lincoln's footsteps as they hike a 19 mile trail from Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site to Stuart Park in Springfield, Illinois. On April 26, 2008, a group of central Illinois Amateur Radio operators provided communications support for 570 hikers from across the country. The hike is part of the weekend-long Lincoln Pilgrimage, sponsored by the Abraham Lincoln Council of Boy Scouts of America (BSA).

A 38 Mile Commute

In 1831, 22 year old Abraham Lincoln moved to New Salem to work as a store clerk and mill hand. While living in New Salem, Lincoln taught himself grammar, literature, mathematics, surveying and law. Law books were not available in New Salem, so Lincoln borrowed books from John Stuart in Springfield. Because Lincoln could not afford the stagecoach fare to Springfield, he walked to Springfield or borrowed a horse, often hiking to Springfield and back in a single day. In 1837, Lincoln became a law partner to John Stuart. Today, New Salem is an Illinois state park, with interpreters and volunteers wearing period dress, as they reenact life in the 1800s. By hiking the same route, Scouts gain an appreciation for Lincoln's commitment to learning and an understanding of environmental stewardship.

In 1995, volunteers from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began providing logistical support to the hike as an Earth Day project with the Scouts removing trash and aluminum cans from the trail. Management of the hike was a challenge because of poor cell phone coverage along the route. At Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site near Petersburg, where about half the Scouts camp, there is no cell phone coverage and a third of the trail route has cell coverage ranging from zero to unreliable. In 2005, Springfield area hams began providing communication support for the event.

A total of 41 hams from seven central Illinois counties provided operators for seven fixed stations along the hike route and at three campgrounds. Mobile operators accompanied three BSA and Illinois EPA officials. Robert McNeal's, K9KGO, UHF repeater near Tallula, Illinois, provided 100 percent trail coverage to amateurs equipped with a handheld transceiver or mobile UHF radio. The two campsites that are the farthest from New Salem can easily work the repeater with a portable ground plane antenna at 20 feet and a mobile with 10 W.

APRS Comes on Board

In 2008, Automatic Position Reporting System (APRS) support was added. In order to ensure coverage, a temporary APRS digipeater was installed with an antenna at 85 feet on Ben Kiningham's, K9IDQ, tower, located just south of the New Salem Historic Site. All support vehicles were equipped with either a 2 meter APRS tracker or a full APRS station and seven of the 10 fixed stations were running APRS with a computer using UI-View software. This provided visual map-based tracking and messaging capability. The mobile stations automatically reported their movements to the camps, BSA officials and the end-of-trail location where parents and Scout leaders awaited news of their hikers.

Severe weather is a frequent visitor to central Illinois in late April, and with nearly 600 scouts hiking, it is a significant concern. The 2002 Lincoln Trail Hike (LTH) was cancelled in mid hike due to flash flooding. The Sangamon Valley Radio Club operates an APRS system that would have alerted the LTH stations of any weather advisories, watches or warnings issued by the National Weather Service. Weather during the 2008 hike was favorable, but on the eve of the hike, a cold front pushed a squall through the Springfield area, with hail and wind gusts to 60 mi/h. A number of the LTH Amateur Radio operators began their public service early, by manning their storm spotter stations on Friday evening.

Tracking the Tail

In the closing hours of the hike, the pervasive question is "Where are the last hikers and when will they get here?" One of the Illinois EPA vehicles, equipped with a full APRS station, followed the last hikers and sent text messages regarding their progress. An APRS station operator placed a hiker icon on the map to show the position of the last hikers. Scout leaders, hikers and local law enforcement personnel were surprised to see the vehicles and hikers being tracked in real time and to see the text messages with information on injured hikers (mostly blisters) and other issues the support vehicles were responding to. Reporters from several news organizations noticed the radio operations and our trailhead APRS station appeared in a video on the Springfield State Journal Register Web site.

During the hike, other Amateur Radio operators manned special event station N9L from three locations, making 168 contacts on SSB, PSK31 and CW.

On April 25 and 26, 2009, the Lincoln Pilgrimage, which includes the LTH, will celebrate Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday. Central Illinois hams will be back to support the hike with phone, expanded APRS coverage and another special event station.

Photos by Ben Kiningham, K9IDQ, except as noted.

Bob Carson, KC9HGW, an ARRL member, became interested in Amateur Radio later in life, after a brief SWL career and an assignment as Battalion Communications Officer in the Army National Guard. He was licensed in 2005 and upgraded to Amateur Extra class in 2007. He has a Master of Science degree in civil engineering from Iowa State University and Southern Illinois University and manages the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency team overseeing military base cleanups in Illinois. Bob is a member of the Sangamon Valley Radio Club and the local ARES team. On HF, Bob operates mostly CW and as much of that on straight key as possible.

Having experienced firsthand the communications difficulties of the Lincoln Trail Hike, Bob first asked the Sangamon Valley Radio Club to support the event in 2005. He can be reached at 924 Cherokee Dr, Springfield, IL 62711 or at

Bob Carson, KC9HGW



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