Best Field Day at home ever

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This isn’t me, but I share the sentiment.

I seem to be one of the few hams that really doesn’t care for Field Day. It starts too late in the day, the scores don’t really mean anything, and it’s generally been a mess every year I’ve participated.

Here in the south, Field Day typically falls on a brutally hot day of the year, which always leads to an afternoon storm. It’s damp, muggy, and miserable. Still, I get the point, and there are aspects of it that are fun — the food and friends mostly.

I mentioned in my last post that I’d fallen out of love with the hobby a bit. I’ve only recently taken some steps to get back on-board after nearly a year of being off the air at home. While ambitious plans were in place at both of the clubs I visit, I decided I wasn’t going to even visit the FD sites. That did change, as I wanted to see some of my old buddies.

The folks at Dutch Fork had a relatively quiet, competitive effort going and word has it they cleared more than 1,000 QSOs. That’s great. They also have the benefit of running from a nicely appointed shack/EOC with real antennas.

The club I was formerly president of, The Columbia Amateur Radio Club, planned a gathering at an exceptionally beautiful lakeside retreat. The difference there is you’d never know a ham event was taking place, as all the operators were huddled in their own campers/trailers. I did speak with one of my favorite gents of the hobby, Bill, W4FSV, who was old-schooling it in a picnic shelter with a KX3, low dipole and his CW paddles.

I arrived home from my Field Day tour and my wife and I had a leisurely meal, followed by a craft beer run. It was after 9 p.m. when I finally turned on the rig and began operating.

The bands sounded decent, with SSB featuring the usual chaotic mess. I tuned over to the RTTY portion of 20 meters and started there, then clicked over to 40 meters.

Hey guys, pro tip: don’t use PSK macros for RTTY in a “contest” situation. I don’t need all the “best 73 and good DX, god bless, logging this QSO at 01:38:00 GMT / dit-dit” crap. Just provide the class and section, preferably 2-3 times, and regurgitate my callsign so I know you have it properly. I half expected to get “WX here raining, 73 degrees” on some of these exchanges. Also, why bother sending a paragraph of text to tell a station he’s a dupe? Log it (or don’t) and move on.

Yeah I know… “it’s not a contest.” That’s why the curmudgeon in me ended up going to CW and staying there for a long time. Lean, fast QSOs and no BS, as always. I wasn’t sitting in a pile feverishly screaming my callsign into the mic — I was working stations. And while I never achieved a fast rate, it was steady, and I worked everything I heard.

I ended the night after about three hours of operating with 102 QSOs. I planned to try for more the next morning, but I overslept and it was nearly noon when I got back on the air. 10 meters was jumping and I managed the most SSB of the event on this band. Ultimately I reverted back to RTTY/CW and finished with 125 QSOs in the log.

That’s not a lot of QSOs, but when I think back to my first “serious” overnight FD a few years back, I struggled to even get a hundred. In fact, I think this may have been the most QSOs I’ve ever logged on Field Day. No doubt, working from the peace and quiet of my home station probably helped.

Back in business

After a nearly year-long hiatus from being able to operate HF from my home, I’m back on the air.

Right before last year’s 13 Colonies special event I discovered damage to my feedline. There wasn’t really anything I could do but junk the whole run of cable. I took down my dipole too, because I thought I would put up another type of antenna, such as an end-fed, or maybe even a Spiderbeam.

Weeks turned into months. And eventually I found myself at a crossroads, not only with the hobby, but with other aspects of life as well. I focused on other efforts, such as writing, and in fact another radio amateur and I cranked out two screenplays last summer.

I focused on some other hobbies, but I mostly worried about my career, as my previous employer was going through “a transition” of sorts. I knew I needed to seek other employment, or else I’d probably wind up the casualty of a reduction in force.

By the time December rolled around, I was basically done with ham radio. I shambled through my final months as president of the local club, an organization I loved, and had faithfully attended every meeting for the past five years. I’ve since stopped attending.

I gave up a prestigious position in the officer line at the lodge. It was a position I’d been waiting to take since joining the lodge, but something inside me said it was time to walk away, and so I did. I’ve also stopped attending these meetings. I didn’t renew my dues with other Masonic groups either, the Scottish and York rites.

By February, I was installed in a position with local government, essentially doing the same sort of work I’ve done for the past dozen or so years.

There was an uptick in radio interest for a moment. I participated with another club for the S.C. QSO Party and we smashed the scores for multi-multi operation. I had a brief flirt with some targeted DXing and grabbed two ATNOs, but my enthusiasm for that ended quickly.

I found a new hobby… playing the bass guitar. To purchase the bass, I sold off the 24-year-old American Stratocaster that I’d owned since college — an instrument I swore I’d never sell. I’m much happier with the bass to be honest. I don’t have a long history with it, but it’s more fun to play, and I’m already playing bluegrass basslines with a buddy of mine who plays banjo.

I also go interested in street photography again (I’m warming up for a trip I plan to take to Cuba in November), and I purchased a Fujifilm X100F for that purpose. I’m loving it!

I considered selling all my radio gear recently, but before I quit, I want to achieve DXCC via LOTW. I set a soft deadline to have an antenna back up before the 13 Colonies this year. I wanted to get the feedpoint of the antenna closer to my shack, but since I never figured out what kind of antenna I wanted to erect, I decided to just go with the trusty OCF again. This time, I opted for the stout low-loss LMR 400-style coax in an effort to minimize losses over the 150-foot run.

Saturday I woke up and went to work getting the antenna back up. Is there anything worse in ham radio than hanging a dipole? Jeez. It always turns into a mess of backlashed rope/wire, fighting with limbs, etc. I used my fishing rod to cast a bolt over the same limb I used before, pulled up some paracord, and hoisted the OCF up. Everything was going well until I realized I’d literally been pressing my face into a patch of poison ivy while I was tying off the center balun. No ill effects so far…

Then I was off climbing a tree to tie off the short arm, and later, into the swamp behind the house, which was dank with primordial ooze from a recent storm. I was ankle deep in muck, hauling the long leg southward when I realized there could be wildlife back here. Like alligators. Most certainly snakes. I quickly tied off the antenna and got out of there.

Back in the shack, I was receiving signals nicely. 10 meters was even popping. I issued a CQ on 40 meters and 20 meters CW and verified I was being received on the Reverse Beacon Network for both bands. Yep, I was getting out.

And that was all the radio I did for the weekend. I’m glad to have the antenna back up and working, but I need to get motivated as well. How can I get my interest level back up? Suggestions?

Two all-time new ones!

I was looking back on my Logbook of the World account the other night and lamenting the fact that I’ve been stuck at 93 confirmed DXCC entities for at least a few years now. As I’ve posted here before, I’ve contacted more than 100 countries, but I really want to complete the award using LOTW confirms only.

So I thought it was time for some targeted DXing. Scour the clusters, find the obscure countries, determine if they are on LOTW, and if so, try to work them. As I am still down an antenna here, I met up with friends Saturday morning over at the Little Mountain shack to use the tri-bander.

GP0STH, Guernsey Island

Right off the bat we snagged GP0STH, Guernsey Island, on 20m phone. There were a few other interesting prospects on the dial. Vatican City was booming but working a pile 5-10 up. The operator isn’t an LOTW user, but we gave it a shot anyway to no success.

A code operator from Ghana was also operating a split pile-up but an inability to get heard, plus massive QSB made that attempt a failure as well.

Fortunately,  a DXpedition in Niger had a great pair of ears. 5U5R was operating split on 15-meter CW. I jumped in and he got me after about 5 minutes of trying. I felt like it may have been an ESP QSO, so I was encouraged when I checked his online log this morning and found a confirmation for my callsign!

So that’s a few new ones in the book and hopefully they will result in LOTW confirmations. If so, I’m five away from the wallpaper!

Nice effort for the S.C. QSO Party

A group of us decided to break away from normal club plans and team up for the South Carolina QSO Party this year. We chose to operate from the shack of the Dutch Fork Amateur Radio Group and used their callsign, W4DFG.

We had two K3s (mostly used for SSB), a Kenwood 590 on CW, and a Yaesu 857 for digital modes. Owing to a work commitment, I didn’t arrive at the shack until nearly two hours after the contest started, but I planned to stay in until the end. I quickly setup my K3 and had three major problems right off the bat:

One, the bandpass filter I was handed was causing a very high SWR during anything but the shortest transmissions. I pulled that and we later discovered something inside it had burned out.

Next, the power supply I borrowed (some Radio Shack thing), couldn’t handle long transmissions, such as a RTTY CQ, and as such, my radio kept cutting off. We fixed that issue by swapping in an Astron.

Third, N1MM was freezing up and complaining about my digital setup (specifically, the port). I’d just updated the software the night before and thought I’d tested it thoroughly. Evidently I hadn’t. Anyway, after futzing with that for a couple minutes, I saw my error and I was up to full speed and calling CQ on 20 meter voice.

Sounds like a mess, but this is the typical shakedown after picking up my rig and moving to an unfamiliar location.  Anyway, I had the pleasure of using the shack’s tri-band beam, and that’s always a pleasure. We aimed it west and left it there for the duration of the day and we were able to work just about everything we heard. I didn’t do any search and pounce, and my voice paid for it, especially since I was already nursing a bit of a sore throat/head cold to begin with. I went through a half bag of cough drops and pressed on.

Oh, and I added a neat new piece of kit to my setup: The Yamaha CM500 headset. At a fraction of the price of the Heil Pro Set, the Yamaha seemed to do a fine job. I had multiple unsolicited good reports on the quality of my audio. I didn’t really alter the settings I use for the Heil PR781 (which are the Heil-suggested settings), but I did use less compression and a lot less mic gain, since the Yamaha has an electret mic.

The best part is the easy setup. The K3 has connectors on the rear for headphones and a mic, so the Yamaha plugged in without needing any special adaptors or splitters. The only thing I had to do was switch the K3’s settings to use the rear mic panel and turn on the bias. I was able to run on VOX the whole time and keep my hands free for logging.

So how did the contest go? Fine I’d say! I made 160 QSOs from my station, mostly on SSB, but I did break into some RTTY for a bit. However with the North American QSO Party RTTY contest going, it made for some confusing exchanges. I finally just started sending the NAQP exchange AND the SCQP exchange at the same time. I operated mostly on 20 meters, but dipped into 15 meters for a bit, and did quite a few QSOs on 40 meters later in the day.

The other SSB station, which started on time, managed nearly twice as many QSOs and had a revolving door of operators. We also had a few code operators, who racked up more than 130 CW contacts. Our digital guy probably had the hardest job of the day because there just aren’t many digital participants in this contest, but he did pick up a bonus station on PSK, and another dozen or so contacts, which gave him a nice score.

I noticed quite a few bad attitudes on the air, and I got the full force of one during a run on 20 meters. It went something like this:

After more than 20 minutes of operating on a remarkably clear frequency, 14.263 —

Unknown annoyed guy: “You guys need to move away, you’re interfering with the DX on 261.”

Me: “I’m sorry to hear that friend, I’ve been looking at my panadaptor and I’m clear on both sides.”

Annoyed guy: “OK have it your way, you just keep being an idiot and I’ll keep calling on top of you.”

Me: “No one’s interfering with me. I haven’t heard a thing but the stations calling me.”

Annoyed guy: “Get a better antenna.”

(By now I’m eyeing the K3 and thinking about the giant Yagi I’m using… it doesn’t get much better to be honest.)

I was pretty stunned because I’d cleared the frequency asking if it was in use no less than three times before calling CQ. I wasn’t being interfered with at all. I’m running only 100 watts, and as I mentioned to the a$$hole, the band scope showed a mostly clear portion.

I tuned up to .261 to see what the fuss was about. There was no DX there. No, he was actually at .258 (maybe he moved?), and his sidebands were splattering nearly as far out as .261. Oh, and what was this RARE entity that was worth such angst from my annoyed friend? An American operating from Costa Rica. Wow, that’s right up there with Navassa Island bro.

I had a similar incident later on 40 meters, when a guy jumped in on top of my callers and made a rant about foreigners. Then someone called him an idiot and the frequency erupted in insults. I just moved off that, waited a moment and came back to it once the troll had moved on, presumably to 7.200.

I wasn’t the only person fighting trolls, as I heard our other SSB station run off a few.

But overall, a strong finish on the day. We logged 639 QSOs and should have a top finish in our class!

The long dry spell is over

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The beam at Dutch Fork works wonders with 5 watts!

Wow. I just realized I haven’t posted in early July. That’s quite a dry spell, and so much has changed since then:

  • I am no longer president of the Columbia Amateur Radio Club, as my year term expired, and I didn’t opt for a second.
  • I am no longer employed with the school I’d worked at for the past six years.
  • I haven’t done any meaningful ham radio in ages.

Well, one thing hasn’t changed, and that is that I STILL don’t have an antenna up here at home. When the system failed back last July, I kept putting off the installation of a new antenna and coax owing to the brutal southern heat. As we transitioned into fall and winter, there were other priorities. My rig has gone unused for quite a while.

It’s hard to say what happened. My interests tend to swing wildly. Being president of the radio club was something akin to “seeing how the sausage was made” and I found myself planning meetings, developing agendas, building programs, and a dozen other things that basically shifted my radio interest from operating to administration.

Then there were other hobbies: Astrophotography, my vintage bulletin board system, learning Python, horology, picking up the guitar again, scriptwriting, and hell, metal detecting. While I wasn’t on the radio, I took beautiful images of the night sky, my BBS grew exponentially, I started coding an adventure game in Python, I collaborated on two feature-length screenplays, expanded my watch collection and met some interesting relic hunters. It’s been a busy year!

I’m still involved in public information with the club, and I am still grinding out the monthly newsletter, but I have enjoyed being just another “bum on the bus” at recent gatherings.

But I’m ready to get back to the radio. Saturday I met with “The Steves” — KI4VGA and W4SJD, at the local Waffle House for breakfast, after which, we headed over to the Dutch Fork Amateur Radio Group’s shack in Little Mountain.

I kept it simple: Yaesu FT-817. However, I was able to plug into the 20m beam located some 70-80 feet up a tower. Even 5 watts does wonders on a beam like that. I never even considered needing more power as I operated PSK31. I was simply testing my station when I sent a CQ out and someone immediately responded off the backside of the beam. We aimed towards the EU and I called CQ, working England, several Italian stations, and a Canadian.

Just for fun we clicked over to SSB and I one-shotted the first station I heard, a gentleman who was operating for the Vermont QSO Party. All three of us worked him in succession at 5 watts SSB. Further up the dial, I located a Minnesota QSO Party station and we repeated the process.

We also logged some QSOs with Switzerland. The only thing we never managed was breaking a pile-up into Portugal. Even so, it was a great little outing and not bad at all for an hour and a half. Once I arrived home I logged the QSOs and I already have some confirmations on LOTW.

I hope to get rolling at home again soon. I’m currently investigating the possibility of putting a small Mosley beam on the roof. I even have the wife’s permission!

Small steps.

Coax dead, HF down…

I was looking forward to chasing down the 13 Colonies again this year. I managed a sweep in 2015 and never sent off the QSL card, so I hoped to remedy that this year. It was late by the time I made it into the shack, I turned on the rig and tuned around. There were no signals to be found anyway. The panadapter showed no activity. The bands were utterly silent. Even for this low point in the solar cycle, that seemed unusual.

I unscrewed the coax from the back of the radio and jiggled it around a bit. That seemed to help and suddenly the bands were loud and I could hear some faint signals. So the coax jumper has gone bad. I’ll replace it. A few moments later, I had the same problem: very low noise and no activity on the bands.

At this point I figured maybe the antenna port on the back of the K3 was bad. I switched to the second port and had the same poor result. Time to hook up another radio. I connected the FT-817 and nothing, zip, zilch. Again, unscrewing the connector and jiggling it a bit seemed to help. At this point I realized I was simply shorting the coax and the cable itself was functioning as a rudimentary antenna. There must be a problem either in my dipole or the 150-foot run of coax leading to it.

At it was nearly 10 p.m. by now, there was very little I could do, so I turned everything off.

Saturday morning. I took the 817 outside, unplugged the external feed line from the window jumper and connected it to the 817. No signals. In inspecting the outdoor coax, I found several patches where the outer jacket of the RG8X had been chipped (chewed?) away and the braided shield was exposed and damaged. This could have certainly allowed water in. As I removed the coax, I came to a corner where it was really beat up and nearly severed in half. Even if the water didn’t get in there, the damage in this particular spot was enough to wreck the whole system.

I lowered the dipole, disconnected the RG8X and tossed it in the trash.

So now I had a long holiday weekend and no antenna… but wait, I DO own a Buddistick. That will have to do.

Saturday afternoon I deployed it on a mast in my front yard and ran a 50-foot run of coax back to the shack. I was able to tune it using the FT-817, to a fairly lower SWR in the voice portion of 40 meters.

Ugh, the noise! I had no luck on SSB so I switched to CW and despite a high SWR in the CW portion of 40, the K3’s tuner provided a match. (I should have gone out and re-tuned, but good lord it was hot outside Saturday…) I turned my power back a bit and let ‘er rip. I managed to get every 13 Colonies station I could hear in the log and also grabbed some on 20 meters later for good measure.

I worked a few more Sunday, including one of the bonus stations, WM3PEN on CW. In total I only managed 7 of the 13, three of those were SSB and the other four were CW. Pretty pathetic, but I did what I could with the vertical. I didn’t manage to get my own state, South Carolina, or our neighbor Georgia.

I did snag:

  • Maryland
  • Delaware
  • New York (CW, two bands)
  • New Jersey (two modes)
  • Pennsylvania

Talk about coming up short.

Anyway, this is a good time for me to change my setup at home a bit. I’ve wanted a different antenna for some time now, even though the OCF dipole was doing a great job and it probably is the best antenna for my situation. My wife has told me I can “put anything on the roof” that I want, so I’m considering a hex beam, HOA be damned. That will be several months down the road though.

Looks like only temporary antennas for the time being.

Hands-on with the new Elecraft KX2

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This lucky guy scored a KX2 in Dayton.

I had a chance to play around with the Elecraft KX2 on Saturday. While I wasn’t able to do a thorough test, I was certainly able to form some impressions of this little radio.

I know some of the guys in the Dutch Fork Amateur Radio Group (our clubs have been collaborating more in recent months), and one of them, knowing I have a K3, invited me to an unveiling of the KX2. After meeting with a group of members for lunch Saturday we made our way over to the DFARG club shack in Little Mountain and all gathered round while one of their members conducted a show-and-tell of Elecraft’s newest offering.

According to the member who owns the radio, he was second in line to purchase it at Dayton the previous week, and attributed his luck obtaining the radio by having a vendor pass that allowed him to get into Hara Arena earlier than most attendees.

The first impression, not surprisingly, concerns the size. We’ve seen the images and read the specs, but it certainly does seems smaller in person. Even with the “handles” this particular owner had already installed on the sides, it’s still a small rig. Saw an FT-817 in half longways and you’ll approximate the size and thickness of the radio. It’s also very light, maybe slightly heavier than my Tytera DMR handheld.

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One of the DFARG members holds the KX2 as we all swoon at the small size.

We placed it next to a KX3 and indeed the KX3 feels quite a bit larger in comparison to the KX2. Interestingly, both radios share the same screen size and display cues, which is also the same display as the full-size K3. The advantages of the display are obvious, particularly when compared to an FT-817, which has a display about the size of a 42mm Apple Watch.

The information layout is the same as its older siblings, and anyone familiar with operating Elecraft gear will be able to pick up the KX2 and get on the air quickly. I still had to poke around a bit to find some of the more esoteric functions, but options such as power output, filter width, mode/band, were right where you’d expect them to be.

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The KX3, top, and the KX2 side-by-side. Apologies for the glare!

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The KX2 is dwarfed by the full-sized K3, but note the screen sizes are exactly the same.

I only managed to test the rig in single side band mode because we didn’t have a code key handy. In the confusion I didn’t try tuning around to listen to CW, but I have no doubt CW operation is a pleasure because SSB was excellent.

Edit: I have since played with this rig again and did manage to listen to some CW. It sounds EXCELLENT through the built-in speaker and the CW decoder is no doubt the same firmware used in the K3/KX3, so it functions quite well also. It’s quiet with the 500 hz filter in line, and receiving code is nice and punchy.

Members commented on how good the tiny bottom-mounted speaker sounded and it sounded good to my ear as well, even though I did hear some crackle and buzz. Another member mentioned it was an improvement over the KX3’s sound. I’d probably still want a good set of cans if I were using it, but for casual operating, particularly in a quiet room, it would be fine without.

The receiver seems sufficiently hot. We tuned around on 20 meters on the club’s tri-band beam and there seemed to be a lack of stations Saturday, but we did roll up on KX5AR conducting an NPOTA activation and scored a QSO on the first shot, having no issues conversing with the operator on our 10 watts of power. I managed to record the QSO in the below video.

The small size makes this a neat little radio for digital modes and it would tuck away nicely under a monitor on a desk or alongside a tablet or laptop for portable use. If I wanted to dramatically scale down my shack, I’d still select the KX3 and an amp, just for 6 meters and the additional control surface.

That does bring me to the one thing I didn’t really like about the rig, and that was the cheap-feeling VFO dial and secondary knobs. This isn’t an issue limited to the KX2, as even the K3 has some cheap knobs (the VFO B knob comes to mind…). Of course, this does save weight, but the rotation of the main VFO didn’t “feel” like that of a $700-1000 radio, if I’m being honest. Even the FT-817 has a smoother action. But again, considering functionality over aesthetics, I can live with the “plastic fantastic” knobs knowing the receiver is good.

Much has been made of this being a “handheld” rig, and I’d say that’s true. We didn’t test the internal microphone. The design is the typical Elecraft style: That of a utilitarian black box, and as such, it’s not particularly ergonomic. It’s larger than most modern handhelds, but yes, it can easily be used in this fashion if that’s what you’re into!

There isn’t really much else I can say. It’s an Elecraft, and a worthy offspring of the venerable K3. It just works very well and portable ops will love it. It functions just as you’d expect an Elecraft rig to, and maybe that’s the highest praise it can be given.

Speaking of portability, one of DFARG’s operators has figured out an easy way to mount a KX2 or a KX3 on a car dash. We’re calling this the “W1TEF solution” and it uses a $28 clamshell style GPS holder from ChargerCity. See the photos of this in action below.

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I’m not sure the KX2 is going to replace my FT-817 at this point, as I don’t do enough portable operation to make it worth the while. But there’s no doubt Elecraft has made an intriguing little radio at an attractive price-point.

 

 

First NPOTA activation; creeping towards DXCC

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Very possibly the dorkiest photo of me ever taken, but it does prove I was there…

Last Thursday I checked off my first activation for National Parks on the Air, operating from AA-10, the Revolutionary War Park in Camden, S.C.

Since I don’t have a mobile unit, I caught a ride with my good friend Ronnie, W4RWL, and he graciously allowed me to use his Kenwood 480. I started CQing on 20 meters and snagged a dozen or so stations out west, but band conditions weren’t great. Once 20m dried up, we moved to 40m and called again. The bands didn’t seem to be much better there, but I ended the effort with 52 QSOs in the log.

I probably would have kept going had we not been interrupted by a pair of guys who parked alongside of us, and seeing the large screwdriver antenna on Ronnie’s truck, wanted to see what we were doing. Turns out they were hams from the upstate and were familiar with NPOTA. By the time we finished talking with them, I’d lost the frequency. Eyeball QRM I reckon?

By the time I made it back home a half hour later, I already had an e-mail waiting for me from a ham in Florida, who mentioned that I couldn’t pick him up, and questioned whether we had the attenuator switched on.

Now, I’ve been known to make stupid radio mistakes before (like the time I had the K3 in test mode and CQed on RTTY for a half hour on field day and wondered why no one was responding…), but we definitely weren’t running with an ATT on, and in fact, we had the pre-amp in-line. Hehe, I was tempted to ask him if he was sure his rig wasn’t in low power mode, or if his antenna was tuned properly, but I politely apologized and told him I’d be hitting AA-10 again soon and would send him an e-mail.

He soon responded, saying he worked N4TAL at AA-10 a few weeks back and never received an LoTW confirmation. I had to laugh: N4TAL is my friend Ronnie’s XYL and she literally JUST set up her Logbook account.

I immediately uploaded my logs from AA-10 (Yes guys, I DID properly set the park location, and no, I don’t need any help setting that up…), and instantly confirmed nearly half the QSOs. People are really into NPOTA!

DXCC creep

5j0pI’ve worked well over a 100 DX entities at this point, in fact, I remember when I hit 100 — a CW contact with an operator in the Balearic Islands — but I’m trying to get DXCC using only Logbook of the World confirmations. I sat at 87 confirmed for a really long time. That number slowly crept to 90 as confirmations from very old contacts appeared and my K1N contacts also finally confirmed.

I decided to jump in the fray for an hour or so during the SSB DX contest a few weekends ago and I tacked on a few new ones, including Jamaica (how have I never worked this before?), and Cape Verde. So I’m up to 91 92 confirmations now (Cape Verde just QSLed, w00t!) and keeping a close eye on the cluster for the rare ones (who may also be LoTW users). In fact, I had a nice grab last week on 17 meter CW, 5J0P, from San Andres and Providencia.

 

First NPOTA station in the log

The National Parks on the Air initiative has been a non-starter for me for the past few weeks. Several of our club members have been activating two of the local NPOTA units and having a blast. I do intend to activate them myself at some point, but not having an HF mobile unit, I’m going to need to partner up with some other folks, and we just haven’t organized the effort yet.

I’ve been coming home from work the past few weeks and attempting to work some NPOTA stations as a chaser. I’m guessing a lot of these guys are operating QRP, or with some sort of compromised antenna, as I haven’t been successful in even hearing the activators — at least not well enough to manage a QSO.

I was at the radio this afternoon and noticed Sean, KX9X/1 on the cluster, operating from WR16 in Connecticut (Farmington National Wild and Scenic River National Wild and Scenic River). I tuned over and he had a very readable 55-56 signal. Naturally, there was a pile-up. After a few attempts I managed to get heard. I made the QSO just in the nick of time too, because KX9X QSYed not long after.

As I logged the contact, I realized there was something familiar about Sean’s callsign. Of course: KX9X is Sean Kutzko, who I’ve heard on the ham radio podcast, 100 Watts and a Wire. Sean is also the ARRL Media and Public Relations Manager, which I should have remembered, being that I’m the PIO for our club!

I tried to work a few more NPOTA stations on the cluster, but again, I couldn’t hear them. I really need a beam antenna! Nonetheless, it was nice to finally get on the NPOTA scoreboard.

My First SOTA Activation: Sassafras Mountain (W4C/US-001)

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The overlook at Sassafrass Mountain affords a beautiful view to the west.

Cross one more item off my ham radio bucket list: Activating a peak for Summits on the Air.

When I was first seeking my license, I quickly discovered the cult that is SOTA. I believe it was Jerry, KD0BIK’s podcast that introduced me to the concept, but it could have also been many of the blogs I follow. Certainly, the famous videos posted on YouTube by Steve, WG0AT, probably played a role, as they are a ham radio resource that everyone seems to discover at some point. I was fascinated by the program and couldn’t wait to get started.

Not long after getting on HF, I purchased a Yaesu FT-817 and a Buddistick and started planning my first summit. Well, that was more than 3 years ago. Some while back I actually hiked from Rocky Bottom, to the 1,083 meter summit of Sassafras Mountain, the tallest peak in South Carolina, with the intention of operating, only to discover on the peak that I’d left my paracord home and couldn’t suspend the dipole I’d brought along.

I enjoyed a panel discussion on SOTA at a Charlotte Hamfest in 2013, and that was the day I realized I would need to make a serious effort to learn Morse code, as all the guys who presented operated strictly CW.

So now, some years later, this past Saturday, I finally found myself again standing on the peak of Sassafras Mountain with my 817, a dipole and a vertical antenna. This time around I was accompanied by fellow ham Steve, KI4VGA, who I’ve mentioned here before. We’re both nascent code operators trying to get better, and we both enjoy operating in the field.

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There were once trees up here, but the peak has been deforested to make way for another overlook and trail amenities.

The once lush peak had been deforested since my last visit, so there were no trees of consequence to hang the dipole. The vertical was made for this, so I erected it and got down to business tuning the coil for 40 meters SSB.

I’d planned to use Rockwell’s SOTA Goat app on my phone to spot myself, but cellular reception was dicey to non-existent. I proceeded to call CQ on the phone portion to no avail. Many minutes of calling elapsed with no luck. I clicked up to 20 meters and tried again. Nothing.

Just for fun, I plugged in Steve’s Bencher key and called CQ SOTA. To my surprise, KX0R came back to me. I struggled mightily to copy his code though. He’s a big SOTA fan, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he were transmitting from a peak himself.

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Yep, we’re going to use the Buddistick for this.

About that time my cell phone’s reception picked up and I was able to submit my spot to SOTAWatch, and noted “slow code PSE” in the comment field. Immediately, I had stations calling. It probably wasn’t a pile-up, but it sure felt like it. Between Steve and I, we were able to make out the callsigns of most of the stations. It took liberal use of the question mark to complete the calls, but most guys seemed patient. I was grateful for the 500hz CW filter too.

We had a nice opening to the west and logged Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, Missouri and more. I logged 13 QSOs back-to-back and went QRT. I was twitching with adrenaline and I realized I’d been in a trance-like state for the better part of 20 minutes. I tried 40m SSB once more, submitted a spot, and picked up a single Florida station. Perhaps it was the approaching storm, but the noise levels seemed high on 40, so I turned off the rig and began packing up, confident that we’d activated the four-point peak.

I’m amused at how I’ve come full-circle: I got serious with Morse code because of my interest in SOTA. Then, when all seemed lost on my first activation, using Morse code turned out to be the key to success.

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Straight key, FT-817 and a paper log, a.k.a., “working with stone knives and bear skins.”

I realize now that I couldn’t have done this a few years ago; I needed the additional experience of several years to understand how to manage (if you want to call it that) several code callers, and how to stay cool, get the full callsign, exchange reports, and recover from huge mistakes. And well, I know I made a lot of mistakes. And it’s OK to screw up. After all, I’m sitting on a slab of granite, with a 5-watt radio, tapping out code on a straight key, on a fricking mountain!

Needless to say, I understand why people are addicted to SOTA and I’m looking forward to the next opportunity. South Carolina has very few peaks, but I’d enjoy hiking back up to Pinnacle, or Table Rock someday, maybe in the fall during cooler temperatures.

Two more ham radio bucket list items to go: Talking to astronauts on ISS and EME!