Poor Propagation: Can the Elecraft AX1 handle band conditions during this urban POTA activation?

Typically, when I do field activations while on vacation, I squeeze them in and around our family activities and travels. This is quite easy to do because our family enjoys a good hike and we love our parks.

On July 4, 2022 (Independence Day in the US!) my wife and daughters had their own activities planned for the day which opened up nearly a full day–at least a good 5-6 hour window–for me to do park activations solo.

Château Frontenac in Old Québec

I had numerous park choices in/around Québec City–an area rich with POTA sites.

I thought that I could either spend the day hitting one park further afield or hit multiple parks clustered together.

I chose the latter, so I started researching the POTA Map for Québec City.

In truth, pretty much any of the parks in Québec City could have been pieced together for a multiple park run. In fact, there are a number cluster in the city center and in Old Québec, but I was keen to explore a little cluster of parks I noted in the Saint-Foy area west of Québec City:

The map below shows just how close these four parks are to each other. Very doable!

These parks were so close to each other, I considered parking in the middle and simply walking to each site, but after reviewing the distance between the potential activation sites at each parks more carefully, I realized I wouldn’t have the time to activate all four parks if I walked it.

It was this activation that reminded me how brilliant it would be to own a folding bike like by buddy Jim (N4JAW) uses on each of his nearly daily POTA activations. With a bicycle, I think I could have actually activated these more quickly than I could with a car because there’d be no need to find a parking spaces at each site.

The Plan

I decided I’d try to hit my four parks in this order:

The only park I’d visited in advance was Parc Cartier-Roberval so I knew I’d need a little time to find activation sites, etc. at the other three. If the activations took longer than expected to validate with 10 stations logged, I might have to skip the final park.

Interestingly, three of these four parks were ATNOs (All-Time New Ones) thus had never been activated for POTA.

Unstable prop

That Thursday morning, I checked propagation by contacting my buddy Mike (K8RAT) who reported that conditions were in the dumps and to allow much longer to complete each activation. I turned on the TX-500, which I had set up semi-permanently at the condo, and found after a bit of band-scanning that he was correct. I couldn’t hear a single POTA activator spotted that morning; in fact, I heard few stations in general. The bands were very quiet and QSB was prominent.

In my mind, I was prepared to skip that last park already.

I packed my Elecraft KX2 field kit and planned to use the TufetIn Random Wire antenna at all of the sites. As a backup, I also brought the Elecraft AX1 antenna.

A little secret here: bad propagation can be frustrating at time, but I never let it stop me from doing an activation.

Time to hit the first park!

Parc de la Plage-Jacques-Cartier (VE-0970)

I arrived at Parc de la Plage-Jacques-Cartier around 10:15 AM local. Parking was quite easy (and free!) although it was filling up quickly that beautiful morning.

The park is nearly ideal for POTA. I was super pleased to see a number of picnic tables and loads of trees I could use to support an antenna.

There were, however, a couple of park employees walking around checking out the site and doing a bit of morning clean-up. Because I was pressed for time and because throwing a line into a tree would have been pretty conspicuous at a park that had only been activated once before, I thought it best to go low-profile and low-impact.

Time to set up the Elecraft AX1.

To be clear, I seriously doubt I would have been asked to leave the park or take a wire antenna down. So far in Québec, I had no problems at all doing activations. I just didn’t feel like testing the waters on a day I was on a schedule attempting a multi park run. That and, to be frank, I was still not used to activating urban parks with so much activity.

My field kit very easily fit in my Tom Bihn Synapse 25 pack. I use this pack at urban parks because it’s lower-profile and much less tactical than my Spec-Ops EDC pack.

As you can tell in my activation video, I had strong reservations about using the AX1 that day of all days.

Setting up

Here’s one of the beautiful things about the AX1 antenna, especially if you’re attaching it to the KX2: set up is a very speedy process. It takes me a maximum of three minutes, but I bet I could do it within one minute if needed.

The winds were pretty gusty that day on the shore of the St. Lawrence and while the AX1 is otherwise pretty stable when attached to the KX2, it does not handle strong winds well. It has a tendency to fall down. To give the AX1 a little extra support, I ran the whip through the carry handle on my Tom Bihn pack. That worked out quite well, actually.

Quick note/update: a number of readers have pointed out that I did not have a counterpoise connected to the KX2.

I did, in fact.

I attached the short counterpoise (11 or 13′, I believe?) under the bottom cover screw on the left side of the KX2. That is a good grounding point (on the inside part of the chassis where there’s no paint). You simply can’t see the counterpoise in the photos and in the video, but it’s there!

Gear:

On The Air

The AX1–with the 40M extension coil–is capable of transmitting on 40, 20, and 17 meters.

I planned to only operate on 20 meters and possibly move up to 17 meters if I had any difficulty getting my 10 contacts. I knew 40 meters was dead–the flaring literally wiped that band out completely.

 

Sounding like a broken record here, but each time I use the AX1 antenna, I feel like there’s simply no way it could work effectively.

In terms of size and weight, it feels like…a toy.

The whip is about 5 feet tall. I think my first CB walkie talkie had a longer telescoping whip.

When you’re sitting at a picnic table, pushing a mere 5 watts into this wee aerial, it just doesn’t seem possible that it could possibly work. Even though it’s proven me wrong so many times, using it on a day with poor propagation felt like an exercise in futility.

Still…

With my fingers crossed, I started calling CQ POTA on 20 meters.

Within one minute, a number of stations replied all at once.

What?

Within the first 4 minutes of the activation, I logged seven stations!

I knew this could have been a freakish little opening on the bands, so I worked the hunters as quickly as I could without going into contest exchanges.

The pace of contacts only slowed slightly after those initial seven.

In the end, I logged twelve station in 19 minutes. Here are my logs:

QSO Map

I think what really tells the story of the AX1 at this activation is looking at the QSO Map. Five watts into the AX1 on a picnic table was able to yield this in 19 minutes:

Activation Video

Here’s my real-time, real-life video of the entire activation.  As with all of my videos, there are no ads and I don’t edit out any parts of the on-air activation time. In fact, this entire video was done in one take:

Click here to view on YouTube.

I won’t lie: this was an incredibly exciting activation!

I live for QRP activations like this–they remind me of the pure magic and joy of radio.

Part of me wanted to continue operating 10-20 more minutes, but looking at my watch, I knew it was time to move to the next site in my multi-park run. Look for that field report soon!

Thank you

Pont Pierre La Porte in the distance

Thank you for joining me on this brilliant little activation! This is why I’m so insanely addicted to POTA.

I hope you enjoyed the field report and my activation video as much as I enjoyed creating them.

Of course, I’d also like to send a special thanks to those of you who have been supporting the site and channel through Patreon and the Coffee Fund. While certainly not a requirement as my content will always be free, I really appreciate the support.

In fact, your support is what has made this extended family road trip to Canada possible. I apply any funds above and beyond the costs of running the website, producing the videos, and purchasing review equipment, to our family travel fund. This not only gives me an opportunity to play radio well outside my home area, but my family also gets to benefit from the work I put into producing activation videos and content on QRPer.com.

Thank you so very much!

Cheers & 72,

Thomas (VY2SW / K4SWL)

19 thoughts on “Poor Propagation: Can the Elecraft AX1 handle band conditions during this urban POTA activation?”

  1. Thanks Thomas for this encouragement to try my AX1, I have one though have never used it. So I guess soon is the day to use it. Thanks for sharing your experiences.
    73
    wb8yxf

    1. Yes indeed! It’s time to take it to the field and give it a go. It isn’t a large aperture antenna, but I bet that you’ll be pleased with the results. It’ll get you through an activation for sure.

      Cheers,
      Thomas

  2. Hello Thomas, thanks for the mention in this post. Since I became car-less by choice 11 years ago, bike riding is second nature. There have been a few things where I’ve carried my folding bike on public transportation to get me close to a POTA activation site just to see how it worked out. As Dr. Emmett Brown from “Back To The Future” would say.. “It works!”

    Additionally, I’ve learned just because the bands MAY seem to be dead does not necessarily mean that’s true. Like life, you never know until you try. Get out there and enjoy the outdoors through Amateur Radio.

    1. Just reading this over breakfast and today I’m without a vehicle so this is an inspiration to try a new style of activation. I have 2 parks within cycling distance (both are located equidistant on a rail trail, one east, one west) and I’m going to see if I can load up a pared down gear list in the bicycle panniers and head to one of them for an activation. Thanks for the motivation!

    2. Well spoken, Jim!

      I do think your folding bike setup is brilliant. I love how you’re out there so many days of the week playing radio and having a ball. You’re the real deal!

  3. Gracias Thomas por compartir tu experiencia me gusta leer las crónicas de todos los amigos, espero en algún futuro cercano poder contactar contigo, me daria mucho gusto
    Recibe un abrazo de tu amigo
    Alvaro Gasga Cid del Prado XE3PNO
    Pinotepa Nacional Oaxaca, México
    73,s

  4. Hi Thomas,

    I had to laugh. It looks like some of us played musical chairs on the QSO map. K8RAT was in MD, I was in OH, and W9AV stopped to visit me in NW PA… HAMRS is great, but sometimes a bit quirky…

    Best 73 de Brian – K3ES

    1. Ha ha! I didn’t notice that!

      It’s true, though. QSO Map is amazing, but not perfect. Little quirks like that happen and sometimes valid ham calls are simply omitted. 🙂

  5. The AX1 really does seem to be greater than the sum of its parts, it surprises me with how well it can do sometimes.

    I haven’t used it with this configuration yet but I’m using it this weekend mounted to a small mobile mag-mount base with BNC, with several feet of coax feed, and I’ll be attaching a few of the Elecraft 13 ft radials to the antenna base as well. We’ll see how the baby vertical works with that setup on a picnic table.

    Fun trivia fact – the Chateau Frontenac pictured above was the architectural basis for my high school, Stadium High School, Tacoma WA. Designed as a grand railroad hotel before the crash in the 1890s, it was given to the school district. “The Old Brown Castle” was the nickname. Most people know it as the school from “Ten Things I Hate About You.”

    1. How cool is that? Thanks for the trivia bit about your Frontenac-inspired high school!

      And yes, the AX1 is more than the sum of it’s parts. It’s not a perfect antenna and certainly a compromise compared with the likes of a 1/4 or 1/2 wave wire antenna.

      Still it gets the job done and is hugely fun!

      A bit like taking a cross country trip on a scooter!

  6. Hello Thomas,

    Great surprise this morning reading this post. Nice video,
    You activated this super park on july 4, 2022, and then I activated the same one, and believe it or not, at the same place, same table you were, on july 20, 2022. I did 21 QSO all cw with my FT-818ND and Outbacker Perth plus antenna, with one radial, hook up to the pik-nik table with the CHA UCM bracket , ( from Chameleon antenna) I tune the antenna with AA-54 Analyser for 1 to 1.-

    I tried to put some photos here, it didn’t work!!
    Will send some to your e-mail if you want.-

    Anyway, I like the simplicity of this installation, no coax, no external battery, the key is right on the radio and the AX1 antenna works very well.

    About your comments concerning the curious propagation, you experienced. it is almost regular here, at home or portable. But it works anyway. The reason is very simnple, we are living in the sub auroral zone.
    https://www.spaceweather.gc.ca/forecast-prevision/cond-en.php
    So thank you again, Thomas,

    Hope to work you some day from a new park.

    72/73 Mike VE2TH

    1. Yes indeed!

      I noticed that you activated this park and another nearby when I looked at the park details for this field report.

      You’re SO lucky to have so many excellent parks within reach of your QTH. You live in a beautiful part of the world.

      Cheers,
      Thomas

  7. You sold me on the AX1 last year. I got it right before the price increase. I have used it to make contacts from inside the house, inside hotel rooms etc. I travel for work and when in a rental and out of town I take my KX2 and the AX1 and set it up on the hood and make contacts. I have used it hooked to my MTR3B through a Elecraft T1 and made backpacking contacts. It is honestly one of the best investments in radio I have ever made.

    1. I feel much the same way, Ed. When I purchased it, I thought it would get little use. Turns out? It’s one of the most important antenna options I pack. It can work anywhere and everywhere and has carried me through countless activations.

  8. Thomas, I don’t know if you’ve done this before. But if not, I have a challenge for you. Try a complete POTA activation with the AX1 on SSB only. And see how long it takes for the 10 contacts. Keep up the good work and 73

  9. Hello Thomas,

    About the AX1 antenna, did you ever have the chance to Try some MFJ like the MFJ 1699T or other similar models ?

    Thanks,

    72/73…

    1. I have only once. I need to give it a go again (in fact, I can’t find the video I did for that activation last year…hmmm…?). I’ll take it to the field again soon, though! Thanks for the reminder, Mike!

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