Brooks, it turns out, lives within spitting distance of a number of parks I regularly activate here in western North Carolina. He mentioned he was interested in observing an activation to learn a bit about deploying a field radio kit and, of course, to learn what it’s like to be on the air.
Brooks was also plotting the purchase of his first field radio kit and was very interested in the Icom IC-705 and MFJ-1988LP End-Fed Half-Wave (EFHW) antenna.
Of course, I welcomed him to join me but since we both have busy family lives–and my schedule especially took some twists and turns in March–it took a few weeks before our schedules aligned.
I asked Brooks if he would consider actually doing the activation himself instead of simply observing or tag-teaming it. I’m a big believer in hands-on radio time.
Brooks loved the idea!
On Sunday, March 27, 2022, a window of opportunity opened in our schedules and we agreed to meet at Tuttle Educational State Forest (K-4861). I packed my:
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not really a “YouTuber” so I’m not actually inclined to capture every moment on video, but it struck me that others may appreciate experiencing (vicariously) what it’s like to do a park activation for the first time.
Prior to meeting, I asked Brooks if it would be okay if I made a video of his activation adding that there was absolutely no pressure to do so–just a thought. I’ll be the first to admit that if I were in his shoes, I’m not sure if I’d want a camera capturing my first activation jitters for all to see.
Brooks loved the idea–as he, too, saw value in this sort of video–so I brought my camera along for the ride.
In the same spirit, I asked Brooks if he would write up the field report and he wholeheartedly agreed, so I’ll turn it over to him now:
by Brooks (KO4QCC)
Hello everyone! My name is Brooks, callsign KO4QCC. I have been a licensed amateur radio operator for less than a year. I passed the Technician exam in May of last year, then passed the General exam the following month. I do intend to proceed to Extra eventually, but I’m in no big rush.
I have been interested in ham radio for many years and have always found radio in general to be fascinating. I remember listening to a little AM set when I was a kid and picking up all sorts of stations from who knows where. I also absolutely loved playing with the little kid walkie talkies that were so popular back in the 80’s. Those experiences, along with having a naturally inquisitive nature, set the hook for a lifetime of interest in radio.
Once I became licensed, my first dabblings with radio involved getting the ubiquitous Baofeng HT and hopping on the local repeaters. I had a good time with that, but very quickly found myself craving more. The mystique of HF was calling me, but there was only one problem. I didn’t have any HF gear!
Enter my very generous father-in-law. He is an Extra class operator who has been licensed for many years. He provided me with a loaner setup of an Icom IC-706 and a power supply, but told me I would have to source my own antenna. After some extensive research, I ordered a Wolf River Coils antenna and got on the air. My very first HF contact was into Slovenia. Then, just a minute or two later, I made contact with an aeronautical mobile station in the form of a Boeing pilot flying across the Atlantic ocean!
If my experiences with radio as a child set the hook, those first couple of contacts reeled me all the way in! However, what I really found most fascinating of all was the prospect of portable radio operations. I do have a very meager shack set up in my bedroom at home, consisting of the loaner gear mentioned above, but I was most intrigued by the idea of throwing some gear in a backpack and taking off on a hike somewhere, then setting up a portable station and making contacts. At the time, I knew virtually nothing about portable operating, though, beyond that fact that people did it, somehow, in some mysterious and esoteric way.
Discovering Parks on the Air
Just a few days into my HF career, I came across a station calling “CQ Parks on the Air.” I made the contact, then decided to consult the oracle (Google) to see what that was all about. I’m sure everyone reading this is aware of Parks on the Air, so I won’t try to explain it here, but if by some chance you’ve never heard of it, check it out immediately!
Hunting park activators quickly became my favorite thing to do on the air. I do enjoy chasing DX and the occasional rag chew, but I really love hunting the activators. I think one of my favorite things about hunting activators is that it’s an almost guaranteed way to make contacts. I have never had much luck with my CQ calls, even though I’ve tried a million times. It could get discouraging to get on the radio and not actually manage to contact anyone. POTA changed all of that and within a handful of months, I had hunted over three hundred unique parks. I’d say that a solid two thirds of the contacts in my log have been with activators.
Before long, I started wondering what it would be like to be on the other end, to go out and set up a portable station and activate a park for myself. I watched roughly a million hours of YouTube videos on portable radio, which included discovering Thomas, K4SWL, and his real-time, real life park activation videos. I was fascinated and his approach to making videos worked very well for me. No matter what I’m learning about, I always want to see the entire process, not a bunch of quick edits and cuts.
After a while, I decided to reach out to Thomas to see if I could tag along on an activation at some point. He gave a very kind response and agreed to meet up. After a few weeks of back and forth – we both have a busy family life, after all – we managed to meet up at K-4861, Tuttle Educational State Forest in North Carolina.
Thomas and I chatted for a bit as we went about setting the station up. We then decided that I would do a solo SSB activation and that he would do a CW activation afterwards. I admit that I was quite nervous to jump straight in and activate by myself. I had expected that I would either just be observing Thomas or acting as a “second operator,” but nope, flying solo on day one!
Since I first got on the air with HF, I have become quite comfortable with making contacts in general, and with POTA activators in particular. I’ve worked my way through many a pileup, calling over and over until the activator finally called me back. I have always strived to pay close attention to how they activated, how they managed their pileup, the terminology and exchanges used, and so on. I think that practice really helped me out on my first activation.
The setup we used was simple, an Icom IC-705 and an MFJ-1984LP 40-10 EFHW wire antenna.
The radio was hooked to a Bioenno battery, so it was pumping out a full ten watts rather than five.
Thomas fired up the camera and recorded an introduction, then I started calling CQ POTA!
Once I was spotted on the POTA site, it didn’t take long for the contacts to start coming in. My heart was racing and my hands were shaky. I logged on paper and my nervousness really showed in my handwriting. I’ll have to make sure to pay closer attention to that in the future! I had several instances of a “true pileup” where several operators were calling me at the same time. I’d do my best to pull out part of a call sign and call them back. It was so very satisfying. I can absolutely see why people say activating parks is addicting!
Before I knew it, I had logged 14 contacts on the 40 meter band. Woohoo, valid activation! We then switched over to 20 meters and I got a couple more contacts much further away. I tried calling CQ on 15 meters for a while, but got no takers. Still, 16 contacts in the log on my first activation! I couldn’t have been more pleased!
Here is a QSO map showing my contacts. It is interesting how clearly you can see the difference in propagation between 20 meters and 40 meters.
I am very prone to “paralysis by analysis.” I’m sure some of you can relate. I download manuals and read them. I watch YouTube reviews. I scour web forums. It goes on and on and around and around.
In the very near future, I will be purchasing my “first” HF radio. After much deliberation, I had narrowed my choices down to either the Icom IC-7300 or the IC-705. My main interest is portable operation, so you’d think the IC-705 would be an easy choice, right?
Wrong. So very wrong.
I was absolutely terrified of the prospect of running QRP rather than 100 watt QRO. I’d heard all the sayings like, “Life is too short for QRP.” The loaner radio I got from my father in law pushes 100 watts, so I was really worried that the drop down to 5-10 watts would be debilitating and that I may as well be whispering while everyone around me was screaming.
The weight of the IC-7300 worried me, but I’m in decent enough shape and figured I could surely carry the ten pound radio in my backpack. Another plus to the IC-7300 was the built in ATU. Despite the obvious portability of the IC-705, with QRP power and no antenna tuner, I had pretty much decided on the IC-7300. That is, until I got to use the IC-705 in person.
The IC-705 is an absolutely magnificent piece of hardware. It is shockingly small when seeing it in person for the first time. It feels solid and is clearly very well made, and let me tell you, it being QRP did not dampen my ability to activate the park in the least! Oh, and it sounds so very good. The front facing speaker is very nice and combined with the truly excellent receiver, it makes for a very pleasant operating experience.
Could I get the IC-7300 and lug it in a backpack? Sure. Would it do the job and activate parks? Absolutely. But the portability and versatility of the IC-705 have absolutely sold it for me. By the time you’re reading this, I fully expect that I’ll be the proud owner of my own IC-705!
[Update from K4SWL: Brooks is now the proud owner of an IC-705!]
I was a bit reluctant to reach out to Thomas, to be honest. Not out of anything negative about him, of course, but simply because I was a complete and total stranger. Seemed to me that surely it was weird to contact a total stranger and ask if you can go hang out with them? Apparently not, though, because I now have my first activation under my belt!
The moral of the story is this: Reach out. Find a local activator and see if you could join them at a park. Contact your local radio club and see if you can join up or just come hang out at a meeting. I’ve found that the vast majority of amateur radio operators are very friendly people who are perfectly happy to help the new guys get going. Who knows, maybe you’ll even make a new friend out of it!
Regarding the activation process itself, it was surprisingly much easier than I had expected it to be. I was nervous and really worried that I would screw up and make a fool of myself on the air. I did fumble a few times, but nothing too major. If anyone on the air noticed, they certainly didn’t care.
If you’ve been considering getting out and activating parks, hesitate no longer! It is an absolute blast. I had so much fun and will absolutely become a regular activator once I have my own IC-705. There’s nothing quite like getting out in the great outdoors and playing radio!
I’d like to extend a huge thanks to Thomas, K4SWL, for taking time out of his busy schedule to meet up with me and help me get my first park activated. It is a memory I will retain for the rest of my life, I am sure, and the kick start to what will surely become a lifelong hobby. Thanks Thomas!
73 de KO4QCC
Brooks, the pleasure was all mine! Thanks for your field report and letting us tag along on the ride.
I must say: Brooks did a fabulous job during his first activation. If you watched the video, you’ll see that all of that work he did hunting activators from home paid off. It gave him time to listen to and learn from a wide variety of field operators.
When he hopped on the air, he handled the activation like a pro!
There’s no better way to prepare for an activation than listening and working stations as a hunter. In fact, you’ll find that some of the best hunters are activators!
This first activation took place a few weeks ago and, since then, Brooks has purchased an IC-705 and took delivery last week. He already has a couple more activations under his belt. I was lucky enough to see him spotted on Friday afternoon, so I hopped on the air and worked him during his first proper solo activation on the Blue Ridge Parkway. He sounded like a seasoned activator already!
I warned him as I have many of you: this activation stuff is highly addictive! 🙂
Thanks again, Brooks, and we look forward to reading about more of your field activations! Perhaps I can persuade you to join me on a SOTA activation soon? Your IC-705 will enjoy a little altitude!
Cheers & 72,