FARMINGTON — Hams enjoy surfing the ionosphere more than the Internet.

Formed before World War II, the Totah Amateur Radio Club has been reaching out to people near and far both for fun and to help the community.

The nearly 50 club members from around San Juan County keep in contact with each other and friends all over the globe, and as far as the International Space Station, using wireless technology that doesn't involve a cell phone.

Amateur radio, which sprung from Morse code communication, now boasts around 700,000 users nationwide.

Club president Bill Welch, 70, admits ham radio didn't grab him at first, though he had friends who would occasionally ask if he wanted to try it out.

After retirement from his career as a petroleum engineer, Welch finally found the time and opportunity. He invested in a radio and microphone and put a decent antenna up on the roof of his Flora Vista home.

"Now, I get up every morning by 4 and talk with a group of roughly 20 people around the area and as far as Colorado or Canada for a few hours before my wife gets up," Welch said. "We talk about anything from what kind of car you drive to information on the latest radio equipment. The older I get, the less I sleep, I guess."

But don't think that these radio "hams," as amateur radio users call themselves, are isolated radio geeks surviving weeks alone in basement apartments.

The club sponsors regular clean-ups of a mile stretch of La Plata Road and provides communications for the events like the Road Apple Rally and the Farmington Fourth of July Triathlon. The club also participates each June in the national Amateur Radio Relay League Field Day.

Welch has a lot of fun with his radio, but he sees the use of less populous airwaves as key for emergencies, too.

"Remember 9/11 and the hurricanes," he said. "When power went out, it was the ham radios that kept up the lines of communication when nothing else worked.

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Welch said he recently got a call from a woman who was in a car accident on Navajo Nation reservation, and with the aid of fellow hams, he got her out of harm's way.

Club members Doug and Betty Troxel got into ham radio in the 1970s after a friend in Colorado Springs challenged Doug to join him in studying for the Federal Communications Commission licensing exam all hams must pass. Both passed.

"It's a really fun hobby, but it's the people that make it special," said Betty Troxel. "You meet the most interesting and varied people from many walks of life that you's otherwise not likely hear from."

When not hamming it up at home, the Troxels stay in contact with their fellow hams on-the-go in their 2009 Prius, maybe the only in San Juan County with a magnetic-mount, dual-band antenna on top.

Unlike CB (Citizen's Band) radio users, hams must have a license to operate. Amateur radio users are divided into three classes: technician (entry-level), general (intermediate) and extra (advanced).

Doug Troxel is in the extra class, with a call sign NQ5G, or "not quite five gallons," he jokes. His wife, the club's secretary, is content with her technician level and longer call sign KB5RUA, which is also the vanity plate on the couple's car.

Amateur radio operators can contact individual hams, as well as join in discussion groups. Others join other hams in nets, or networks. Nets can teach operators emergency protocol or be a water-cooler discussion of any topic, according to the National Association for Amateur Radio's website.

Local hams connect with each other using line-of-sight communication, relayed by a half dozen repeater units located throughout the county.

For longer distance messaging, hams use higher frequency waves that transmit messages by bouncing them off of the upper atmosphere.

For hams like the Troxels, the pleasure is in the constant contact with others and the fun of experimentation.

"There's always somebody out there," said Betty Troxel.

More Information:

What: Totah Amateur Radio Club meetings

When: 7:30 p.m. the second Thursday of every month, except in July and September

Where: Farmington Fire Station 6, 3101 W. Main St.

More Info: www.totaharc.org

James Fenton can be reached at jfenton@daily-times.com; 505-564-4621. Follow him on Twitter www.twitter.com/fentondt.