by Vince (VE6LK)
(As is Vince’s usual, this article is full of educational and fun links – click on as many as you wish)
Picture this .. you are getting a bit twitchy due to lack of POTA activation and you have run out of Potaxxia. Further, You publicly stated a New Year’s eve goal to make at least 200 POTA CW activation contacts per month for 2023 (there may have been beer involved), and now you must stay accountable to your goal and you are currently behind plan. It’s too early in the season to be lawn mowing while listening to podcasts such as QSO Today, Ham Radio Workbench, ICQ Podcast, AP/DZ or Soldersmoke. Thus, chasing contacts is [always] a good use of your time.
Lastly, if you are like me, the the solar indices are still an art form being learned and the numbers for today aren’t all in the green zone.
So you begin to wonder just how much effort it’s worth to load up your gear and try to activate. You think to yourself that there won’t be much action on bands other than 20m which has been noisy lately, so why bother as it’s at least a 45 minute trip to the nearest POTA entity.
With this background, on Saturday I placed myself in the city at the nearest-to-home spot I could park in the south part of Calgary adjacent to VE-5082, the Trans-Canada Trail. I was trying to make the best of what I perceived to be a rough conditions day and had no real plan except a convenient location requiring minimal effort for a minimal return. My expectations were, sadly, met in this regard.
I was at the edge of suburbia with large homes on my left overlooking the ravine and pathway on my right. To say it was RF noisy would be a colossal understatement. I made 18 painful contacts in an hour and I’m sure people called me but I didn’t hear them given the S7 noise floor on 20m. At least I made one DX contact to Denmark along the way. Overall feeling frustrated, I went back home.
Sunday morning rolls around and again I wonder “is it worth it”?
PEP TALK TIME — it’s always worth the effort! Ignore the silly talk in your head, load up the vehicle and get headed towards a park to activate!
Here’s how I stave off the blues on weekends like the one I just enjoyed: I hit the road and then I start listening for the NCDXF/IARU beacons!
The NCDXF/IARU International Beacon Project run a series of time-coordinated CW beacons on 10, 12, 15, 17 and 20m. Five of the eighteen beacons are on the bands at any one instant in time. On a three-minute cycle, they first transmit their callsign, then four one-second dashes at 100W, 10W, 1W and 100mW on a ten second interval. These beacons are more predictable than when K4SWL decides to do a 100mW activation! Further, it’s an easy way for you to listen in for a bit and hear, for yourself, what parts of the globe are making it to your receiver. Given the power stepped approach to their transmissions, you’ll hear exactly what a 10dB drop sounds like too.
“But I don’t know CW” you cry! Do not despair, there’s an app for that, in reality a whole bunch for various platforms! Take a look at Tools for Listeners at the top of their webpage and select a tool that’s right for you. I’ve had one on my smartphone for years, and my Palm Pilot before that.
Sunday was different in that it would be a 2 park day, a mini-#POTAthon if you will, but it didn’t start out that way. It started with a relaxing drive along the foothills of the Canadian Rockies to Chain Lakes Provincial Park VE-1168. While driving along Alberta Highway 22 southbound on a sunny Sunday, I planned out what bands I’d operate on when I landed at the park to maximize my contacts.
Given my perception of soft conditions, I was mostly aiming for contacts in North America. I noted that on 15m I could hear 4U1UN, on 17m 4X6TU, LU4AA, CS3B, 4U1UN and W6WX, and on 20m just 4U1UN and W6WX . On 12m I heard only W6WX (normally, CA is an easy hop for Alberta) and on 10m I heard zilch. I also listen to 27.185, CB Channel 19, as if I hear anything I know that 10m is probably open too. It’s an unofficial beacon frequency as far as I’m concerned. The band plan was firmed up and all it took was listening to five different frequencies for a total of under 20 minutes.
My activation at Chain Lakes was as pleasant as I hoped. The ice on the reservoir was still thick although melty on the surface, and one brave soul drove their truck out to go ice-fishing as I looked on in disbelief. They later drove off the ice without incident.
My contacts weren’t without their challenges. I’d not done a long CW activation in a while and I suffered brain lock/fatigue several times, mixing up 1’s and 6’s along with D’s and G’s. Despite being at only 16WPM, I had to send QRS PSE more than once to some that answered me at a full 25WPM, argh.
Hunters, if you can’t turn down your speed at least add some spacing – thank you for coming to my TED Talk.
Overall, hunters were patient with me, and I with them.
Four bands, 90 minutes and 33 contacts later, I started to head for home. But first I stopped at the newly-added VE-6094, The Okotoks Erratic or, as we locals call it, the Big Rock. This one’s near my home in Okotoks, so you can expect to hear me operate from Big Rock often in the future. Don’t confuse this with operating from the tap room at Big Rock, for it isn’t a POTA entity however it has some redeeming qualities. Ahem.
The area is a Provincial Historic Resource and, as such, is protected given its geological and cultural importance. The town name of Okotoks is derived from the Indigenous Blackfoot peoples word for erratic – “okatok”.
The rocks are the size of a three-story apartment building. They total 9x18x41 metres in size, weigh 16,500 tonnes. In freedom units they are simply freakin’ huge. They were deposited by glacial movement some 10,000 to 30,000 years ago. These are the largest glacial erratics in this part of Canada and quite possibly anywhere. It’s not uncommon to find erratics scattered on farmland in this area.
My activation here -an ATNO, the site’s first- netted me 24 contacts in 33 minutes on two bands. My keyer suffered a static hit and I had to resort to -gasp!- sending by hand for about half of it. Nonetheless I’ll call the activation a win!
We’ve been so very fortunate with great solar conditions of late, thus it’s easy to fall into a funk when they aren’t as good as they were yesterday. But shake off those low-SFI blues and take some time to explore the NCDXF/IARU Beacon Project website. Read up on the fascinating history behind it and the supporters of the project (thank you Kenwood and Icom!). Check out the apps that make using this service trivially easy.
But most importantly, make use of this fantastic resource and get on the air!
Thank you to the hunters who make my trips feel accomplished and to those of you that offer words of encouragement about my various activities. I appreciate you all.
73 and dit dit,
First introduced to the magic of radio by a family member in 1969, Vince has been active in the hobby since 2002. He is an Accredited examiner in Canada and the USA, operates on almost all of the modes, and is continually working on making his CW proficiency suck less. He participates in public service events around Western Canada and is active on the air while glamping, mobile, at home or doing a POTA activation. You can hear him on the Ham Radio Workbench podcast, follow him on Twitter @VE6LK, peek at his anemic YouTube presence (subscribe!), and view the projects and articles on his website.