Part 1 – Getting There: VO1DR Goes QRP Portable in Central Newfoundland via Float Plane

Many thanks to Scott (VO1DR) who shares the following guest post:


Portable/Kite QRP Operation in Central Newfoundland Wilderness by Float Plane: Part 1 – Gearing Up and Getting There

by Scott Schillereff, VO1DR

Introduction

I love getting out in the woods and wilds in Newfoundland for portable QRP operation.  Lately, I have been trying kite-borne antennas.  This is a two-part story of a portable QRP adventure with a kite antenna at Mount Sylvester in the Bay du Nord Wilderness Area in central Newfoundland by float plane.  Part 1 describes the setting, history, geology, access, and outdoor/survival gear.  Part 2 describes radio stuff and some dramas with getting a kite antenna aloft.

It is useful to describe the island of Newfoundland setting, since it is unique in North America.  You can think of Newfoundland as a wild cousin of Nova Scotia – many similarities, but worlds apart.  If you want to play radio in a well-developed, refined setting (where giant manicured lawns are a thing), then Nova Scotia is for you; if you want a wilder adventure with some risk and less people, come to Newfoundland and Labrador.

Central Newfoundland Setting

I live in St. John’s, the capital of the eastern-most Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador (NL), situated about equidistant between Boston and Ireland (Figure 1).  This means QRP contacts to western Europe are as easy as those to eastern North America.

The island of Newfoundland is about the size of England but, with an island-portion population of only 479,105, we have less than 1/100th of the people in England.  There is a lot of empty space here!  Most of the people live in small towns and communities scattered along the coasts, originally to pursue various fisheries.

The principal highway (Trans-Canada Highway; Highway 1 on Figure 2) traverses an arc around the northern and western part of the island.  The central area of Newfoundland is a vast sparsely-populated area, historically used by indigenous groups for hunting, fishing and gathering, and, since European contact and later occupation, mostly for logging, mining, recreation, and hydro power projects.

Figure 1 – Location of Newfoundland and Labrador

The Bay du Nord Wilderness Reserve and Mount Sylvester

The Bay du Nord Wilderness Reserve in southern Central Newfoundland (large green patch in Figure 2) was established by the Province in 1986, primarily to protect the Middle Ridge woodland caribou herd – the largest herd in the island of NL.  This 2,895 km2 reserve includes ponds, rivers, bogs and fens, and forests, and is the last major unspoiled area on the island.  There are no facilities, amenities, trail markers, or public buildings – just wilderness.  This inland area has a cultural history of use by the Mi’kmaq indigenous peoples since the 18th century.  The area was first described by European explorer (William Cormack) after his trans-island trek of 1822.  Geologist James Howley was the first known person to travel the full length of the Bay du Nord River in 1887.  A cairn he built atop Mount Sylvester as a surveying marker still stands today (see below).

Figure 2 – Eastern and Central Newfoundland showing Mount Sylvester within the Bay du Nord Wilderness Reserve.  Also showing the capital St. John’s (east edge) and Gander (north-northeast), where we started our flight.

Mount Sylvester (Figures 3 and 4) is an inselberg (German: island mountain) created by weathering and glaciation with top elevation of 365 m (1,198 ft) above sea level, and rising 154 m (505 ft) above the adjacent flat glaciated terrain (for more stats search: peakvisor.com).  It was named after Sylvester Joe, a Mi’kmaq hunter and guide hired by Cormack for his travels.  The yellow arrows on Figure 4 point to Howley’s cairn (about 2.5 m high) at the top, and huge fluted glacial scours along the sides and flanks.

Figure 3 – View of Mount Sylvester looking south
Figure 4 – View of Mount Sylvester looking west, showing Howley’s cairn at the top and fluted glaciated scours along the flanks

Getting There

Mount Sylvester lies immediately adjacent to Diamond Lake, with a gentle glaciated bedrock slope to the summit.  A perfect spot to land a float plane and walk to the top for a QRP adventure!

My companion Kerry, a distant relation in Gander, NL, owns a float plane and for years has been interested to land on Diamond Lake and walk to the top – but never had a second person to go (for safety).  We were a match made in heaven!  My wife and I and our two Havanese doggies drove our motor home to Gander (about 4 hr drive) and Kerry and I geared up for the flight and hike on June 24, 2023.

As luck would have it, hundreds of forest fires were (and are) burning in eastern Canada.  Smoke from those fires has drifted over eastern Canada and most of NL producing a tan haze that can block out the full sun (Figure 5) and reduce visibility for flying.  Since Kerry is only certified for Visual Flight Rules (VFR) flying, it was touch-and-go whether we could fly at all.

Figure 5 – Forest fire smoke haze blocking sun, Gander, NL – June 23, 2023

On the morning of June 24, bright and early, we tried anyway.  The smoke had shifted to form a layer above 1,500 ft altitude, but we could safely fly under it at 500-750 ft altitude.  We were good to go!  Kerry’s plane (C-FAVG) was the venerable Cessna 172 Skyhawk (Figure 6), among the most common small aircraft on earth.  The C-FAVG airframe was produced in the 1970s and has been upgraded and certified ever since.

We drove to his float plane dock at Deadman’s Pond adjacent to Gander airport (this airport was the site of the massive commercial aircraft landings during 9/11/2001; the basis for the Come From Away musical).  Kerry assured me not to worry about the name of the pond…

Figure 6 – Cessna 172 Skyhawk C-FAVG
Figure 7 – Kerry fuelling wing tanks (takes 38 US gal of AVGAS; gives about 6 hrs of flying)

We took off just before 9 am and headed south for about an hour’s flight to Diamond Lake.  Kerry checked in with Gander Tower and within half an hour, we were out of direct VHF contact.  Our communications were by VHF with other planes, or our cell phones (they worked great all day, even on top of Mount Sylvester).

Figure 8 – Pilot Kerry in his happy place during take-off.  Regarding small planes, he said: “Everyone should have one”.
Figure 9 – Me in the plane (at 1.98 m or 6’6”, I barely fit in this dual-controls plane!)
Figure 10 – Typical view in central Newfoundland – a vast glaciated terrain of boreal forest, ponds, and wetlands.  The white patterns in the bogs are reflections of the sky on pools of water at surface.  One cannot (easily or dryly) walk across such bogs, you must skirt around them.
Figure 11- Woodland Caribou on heathery barrens (small ones are new-born calves)
Figure 12 – Larger herd of caribou (expand photo to see calves).
Figure 13 – Caribou on barrens with lurking black bear (circle at right). He will take advantage of a new-born calf in the natural order of things.

Geology

As a geologist, I am fascinated on why Mount Sylvester exists and its interesting geological features.  First of all, the ENTIRE mountain was covered with glacial ice during last ice age (Wisconsinan-Age glaciation ending about 11,000 years ago).  A small continental ice sheet covered the island of Newfoundland, and radiated out toward lower sea levels.  Figures 3 and 4 show the smooth, fluted flanks of the inselberg created by the grinding passage of ice laden with rock blocks and fragments (Nature’s ultimate sandpaper).

Mount Sylvester consists mainly of medium-grained granite, part of the large Ackley Batholith (tens of sq. km).  Locally, this granite must have been harder and more resilient to glacial erosion to have remained as an inselberg while the rest of the Ackley granite was ground flat.

Figure 14 – Ice-polished granite surface (smooth, white surface) near the top of Mount Sylvester.  Glacial ice slid directly over this surface.  This surface has been continuously physically weathered, producing the dull, pink-tan-coloured pock marks by frost action ever since the ice melted.  Water infiltrates tiny cracks, freezes, expands, and pops out a tiny rock chip; runoff carries it away. The horizontal lines in the distant shadowed granite are the surface traces of sub-horizontal unloading joints formed by rock expansion (dilation) following the release of the weight of glacial ice after it melted.
Figure 15 – Glacial erratics dropped by melting ice near top of Mount Sylvester.  Erratics are surficial boulders completely different than the underlying in situ bedrock.  A corner of Diamond Lake is visible in the upper left.
Figure 16 – A larger erratic (metamorphosed purple-gray sandstone; ~2.5 m wide) resting on white glaciated granite.  The glaciated surface and unloading joints are well-displayed behind.

Mount Sylvester is not all granite.  There is a fault on the southwest flank that brings metamorphosed sandstones in contact with the granite.

Figure 16 – Trace of a fault (yellow line) between dark gray sandstone on left (hummocky irregular outcrops) and granite at right (glaciated smooth surface).  Faults may not be directly visible.  Weak, broken rock within a fault zone was easily eroded away by the passing glacier.  Soil and vegetation then filled the eroded gulley. As a result, long, straight lines of vegetation in slight depressions are tell-tale signs of underlying faults.
Figure 17 – Kerry and I about half-way up the long slope to the top.
Figure 18 – The summit of Mount Sylvester – a grand view! James Howley’s cairn from 1887 has been added to by occasional visitors over the last 135 yrs.  The wind was very light at Diamond Lake, but about 25 gusting to 40 km/hr at the summit.
Figure 19 – Can you spot the moose?  View from top of Mount Sylvester
Figure 20 – Moose behind tree (near center of Figure 19).  Moose is facing away to the left, with rump and hind legs shown in circle.  Kerry has sharp eyes…

Gearhead Classification

Before getting into gear for this trip, I want to compliment Thomas and other posters who describe in detail every little bit of their gear.  It is clear that many reading QRPer.com are serious gearheads.  With that in mind, I would like to propose this Classification System for Portable Ham Gearheads:

  • Apprentice – an entry-level gearhead who transitions from need to want (e.g., from “I need a pack” to “I want that pack”).  An Apprentice seeks out a gearhead Elmer (or a Thomas) and begins to acquire multiple packs, containers, zipped pockets, and poke bags, etc. based on others’ recommendations.  Often frugal (this does not last).
  • Journeyman – an advanced gearhead who intently peruses outdoor catalogs for “that next piece of gear I must have”.  A Journeyman’s pulse noticeably quickens when entering an Army Surplus store and sees a wall full of packs.  May drool over new gear, especially that owned by others.  Spends money on gear like a drunken sailor.
  • Mechanic – a variant of advanced gearhead with homebrew tendencies.  Makes,  modifies or repurposes most of their gear.  Adept at field repairs and repurposing discarded things to make ham /P gear.  Appears frugal, but clearly spends far more time making and fixing things than most people would (who value their time at all!).
  • Jedi – a gearhead master who is a connoisseur of gear, with the latest variations and space-age materials.  Often a well-known person, to the point where suppliers send them gear to review.  A Jedi’s gear is well-organized and each piece has a subtly different use or purpose.  Think: kid in a candy store with no known budgetary controls.  May eventually design gear and make a business of it.

You can judge yourself accordingly.  I put myself in the Mechanic class.  Thomas is clearly a Jedi 😊.

Outdoor Gear for This Trip

We adopted a complementary gear system.  Between our day packs and survival bag, we had means to shelter in place if a medical problem occurred or to stay out overnight (e.g., if the plane wouldn’t restart). This seemed prudent given we were an hour’s flying from any help.

Figure 21 – All my gear.  Back L to R: survival bag, day pack, ammo box (for IC705).  Front: tan haversack with radio gear and kite (orange bag).  5.8 m (19 ft) telescoping fibreglass pole (repurposed from discarded bird-scaring mast; doubles as 1.4 m (4.5 ft) walking stick).

Day Pack

Years ago, I switched to a lumbar pack system for day hiking.  Lumbar packs ride low and snug; no more sweaty back or snagging your pack when ducking under fallen trees.

Figure 22 – Lumbar Day Pack by Mountainsmith of Golden, Colorado.  I’ve added loops and ties for external stuff when needed (note light rain jacket tied on top).  This pack is highly versatile and extremely well-made, and is my carry-on for air travel as well.  I have even loaded it up for a bushcraft over-nighter.
Figure 23 – Back side of Mountainsmith Day Pack.  It has a detachable shoulder strap system (optional), or configures as a messenger bag with an over-the-shoulder single strap.
Figure 24 – Load out of day pack for Mount Sylvester trip

Details of day pack contents:

  1. Nuts and nacho chips.  Nacho chips (or Fritos or potato chips) are crushable, and also ignite readily to start a fire (try it!)
  2. Suunto Clipper button compass (tied to pack); beware cheapo Dollar store button compasses
  3. Food container (cookies!)
  4. Food for the day (granola bars, jerky sticks, can of mackerel, cheese, Kolbassa sausage)
  5. Water bottle (1 L)
  6. Second water bottle (1 L, stainless).  Can remove lid and boil water in it.
  7. Sunscreen SPF70 (refilled small tube to keep weight down)
  8. Aluminum match case.  Includes ferromagnesium rod epoxied to outside, with metal scraper on cord.
  9. Elastic wrap bandage and several feet of 2.5 cm (1”) Gorilla duct tape (1,001 uses)
  10. Titanium drinking cup with neoprene beer can insulation sleeve
  11. Custom first aid kit (good functional FAKs could make a whole separate article!)
  12. Thin cotton neckerchief 1 m x 1 m (40” x 40”; like a shemagh).  Boy Scouts 100 years ago had it right (1,001 uses)
  13. Mosquito repellant (30% DEET Muskol; pump bottle with screw on cap)
  14. Sheath knife (Bahco Mora; ~4” fixed blade; plastic sheath).  Bombproof, cheap and all the knife you need. Keep it razor-sharp.  I rigged a thin sling to wear it cross-chest.
  15. Signalling mirror (StarFlash Ultra; about 2” x 3”).  Many uses.
  16. Mosquito net (fits over hat onto shoulders)
  17. Eye glasses neck strap
  18. Mylar survival blanket (56”x84”); Dollar store; many uses.
  19. Hi-vis nylon signalling/marking flag (0.45 m, 18” square, with tie straps)
  20. Plastic shopping bag (to pick up garbage; sadly, it’s everywhere, from Pole to Pole).

On Me

You’ll see lots of redundancy in all this gear – I believe in “two is one, one is none”.

Figure 25 – Footwear.  Lowa Toro Evo GTX LO (leather Goretex hiking shoes).  Hiking in NL, I’ve tried everything from rubber boots to sandals. Personal preference.  Whatever you pick, buy the best you can afford.  Note: you do not need big clumpy hiking boots to “protect your ankles”.  Boots are rarely tied tight enough for this.  Better to develop strong ankles (walk a lot!) and hike carefully, or use a medical ankle brace and stick with light-weight footwear.
Figure 26 – Survival lanyard (worn around my neck).  Whistle and fire starter (ferromagnesium rod glued to piece of resinous fat wood for flammable tinder in all conditions); striker steel cut from old scissor blade.  This firestick can make sparks to light a fire after total immersion. Tip: Venetian blind cord is excellent for outdoor use (repurpose from old blinds).
Figure 27 – Stuff in my pockets.  Top to bottom: Victorinox Outrider (large format Swiss Army knife with locking blade).  Every day carry keychain: clone aluminum flashlight (AAA battery) with low-medium-high modes, 30 cm (12”) of PVC electrical tape wound around end; Fox 40 (flat) whistle; Leatherman Squirt P4 (hard to find); tick key (cut down); mini Bic lighter, with 30 cm (12”) of Gorilla duct tape around body; 5 cm/2” ferromagnesium rod; pocket dongle (made up of knotted spare cordage with wax-impregnated hemp twine (fire tinder) inside).  I also carry lip balm (lips, zipper lubricant, fire starter).

Survival Bag

Figure 28 – Survival bag (left in plane).  Simple waterproof reflective gym back from Ikea.
Figure 29 – Contents of Survival Bag

Details of survival bag contents:

  1. Shelter tarp 2.4 m x 3.1 m (8 ft x 10 ft)
  2. “Trekker’s Friend” – 1.8 m x 2.4 m (6 ft x 9 ft) combination hammock-poncho-bivvy bag (I designed and made this)
  3. Windbreaker jacket with hood (runner’s jacket)
  4. “Poke bag” for gathering anything or signalling (repurposed from boating throw-line bag)
  5. Sawyer Mini SP128 water filter kit (repackaged in ziplock freezer bag)
  6. Tent stakes and guy lines for shelter (Dollar store)
  7. Head lamp (many to choose; this one has white & red light, and multiple light settings)
  8. Bahco Laplander folding saw
  9. 550 Paracord (15 m, 50 ft)
  10. Hatchet (0.6 kg,1.25 lb); keep razor sharp; never chop into the ground
  11. #36 Bank line cordage (30 m, 100 ft) on custom spool
  12. Emergency food (granola bars, honey, tea, sugar, jerky, peanut butter)
  13. Hand warmer pack (for hands or to warm a hypothermic person inside a bivvy bag)
  14. Leather gloves (for gathering firewood; bushcraft)
  15. Compass (Suunto MC-2; could use Silva Ranger or similar).  Mirror has many uses.
  16. Custom cook kit.  Stainless steel Bento box (Dollar store), can boil water over fire, or use small DIY soda can alcohol stove.  White pill bottle repurposed for fuel. Folding spork utensil. Instant espresso coffee (yum!).

Stay tuned for Part 2!

18 thoughts on “Part 1 – Getting There: VO1DR Goes QRP Portable in Central Newfoundland via Float Plane”

  1. This is awesome!

    This report is ticking all the boxes; qrp radio, aviation, geology, and tales of adventure in wild places, plus a serious devotion to kit.

    I eagerly await part 2 😁

  2. Thanks for posting this, Thomas. A small thing – sharp-eyed readers will see that Fig 28 should actually be the first photo (on title page). Keep up the great work!

  3. Great report, thanks Scott. I’ve visited NL (from ON) several times but never ventured outside St Johns. Newfies are the friendliest people I’ve met on my travels and St Johns is a very interesting city (especially Signal Hill, of course). I make or modify most of my own backpacking gear so I found your story very interesting. Looking forward to the next part!

  4. I’ve done a fair bit of mineral exploration in my day… and a dump of my field ruck would yield much of the same gear, swapping the hatchet for a rock hammer & Hastings lense, and my Brunton compass. And I’m convinced, Granola Bars & Medagalia D’Oro (instant espresso), will keep a man alive on an iceberg!

    As far as my classification, I’m currently pairing down my comms gear. Simple, robust & capable… My light sabre is a KX2 & a Packtenna Random Wire.

    Great report.

    de W7UDT

  5. Thoroughly enjoying the detailed aviation, geology, wildlife biology, preparation and equipment background to this report and eagerly awaiting the full radio report in Pt2!

  6. Great report and photos, many thanks and I’m surprised Mt Sylvester isn’t a SOTA summit but a check confirms it isn’t. However, there are a lot of unactivated SOTA summits in that region – some of them close to roads too. Plenty of scope if you want to give them a try!

  7. Thank you! I enjoyed and learned from every bit of this, particularly the geology lesson and the info on what and how you pack. Looking forward to part 2.
    Up to now the only thing I knew about Newfoundland was the Gander VOLMET, which I listen to occasionally on 10051 kHz. 🙂
    I recently saw a news report in which an otherwise well-spoken and seemingly intelligent correspondent kept referring to it as “New Finland”. (???) Are you sure that “moose” wasn’t actually a reindeer? 😉

    1. Hi William, glad you enjoyed Part 1. Regarding pronouncuation, “Newfoundland” is spoken with same cadence and emphasis as “understand”. (Many people commonly mispronounce name as “new-FOUND-land”.) So your correspondent wasn’t far off!

      We did not confirm the DX moose but I trust Kerry’s good eyes. He’s an experienced woodsman. Interesting about reindeer though. I checked and the woodland caribou we saw on this trip are the same species as Scandanavian/Russian reindeer. https://canadiangeographic.ca/articles/animal
      -facts-caribou/#:~:text=%E2%80%9CReindeer%E2%80%9D%20is%20the%20name%20given,move%20through%20the%20deep%20snow.
      No end to interesting spinoffs in ham radio!

      1. Interestingly, my Dad (born in the 1930s, raised in Toronto) always said new-FOUND-land, and claims this is how it was taught to him in school as a child.

  8. I’m intrigued by your use of a telescoping pole as a walking stick. This sounds like a great way to double up on the utility of perhaps the least packable item that we carry on portable radio expeditions. In my experience the bottom cap of many of these is the weak point, usually made from thin, brittle plastic. A definite failure point compared with the fiberglass or carbon fiber tube. (I have several examples and I think this is true to some extent even of the Spiderbeam masts.) Have you done something to reinforce or strengthen the bottom end of yours?

      1. Excellent! In addition to a couple of Spiderbeam masts (the 7m is the one with the plastic end cap, BTW, but it’s only two feet tall collapsed) I have 20 foot and a 16 foot fishing poles that are walking stick candidates. I’m debating between a 10m Spiderbeam mast and a 10m Jackite pole. If the Jackite could double as a walking stick that would be a selling point. Will be watching for your next episode…

  9. Thanks for putting Newfoundland on the QRPers map. Today I’m operating from our cabin in Little Port on the island’s west coast. I’m sitting looking at a portion of the Little Port complex a portion of the Iapetus ocean crust. (Citing Martha Hickman Hild’s book).
    I have my IC 705 with me.

  10. Nice write up of a seldom visited part of Canada. Have been to Newfoundland a number of times, but never with access to a float plane! Now that I have POTA gear, I need to go back!
    de Gil K4JST

  11. Newfoundland is a fascinating place with lovely people, and culturally distinct from the rest of Canada — sometimes linguistically too.

    About 15 years ago we were visiting NL and stopped in a cafe in Bonavista for a snack. The people at the table next to us were clearly locals, and clearly having an animated conversation. But I couldn’t make out a single word they were saying. They were speaking a dialect of Canadian English mutually unintelligible with my own.

    It’s a big country!

  12. Scott – Tnx vy much for a fantastic post on your adventures. Sounds like a blast. Especially appreciate the exquisite details of your equipment and survival bag gear, and Geology of the island – our earth is always moving, just sorta in slow motion, hopefully… Lots of useful information in your post.
    -Going to the Marconi site at Glace Bay is on the bucket list, but looks like it’s only open July & Aug ?
    -Look forward to your future activations and posts.
    73 de K4RLC Bob
    (Meager SOTA activator and poor student of Geology; liked one Geo course at UNC so much I took it twice !)

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