Summer Vacation Mountain POTA
by Matt (W6CSN)
Our family regularly enjoys a summer vacation in the mountains. There is no shortage of mountains along the Pacific Coast, but if you refer to “The Mountains” around our house everybody knows you are talking about 5500 feet up the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada along Highway 4 near the town of Arnold.
Last year’s trip to “the mountains” was my first foray into portable QRP operating and I successfully hunted a few Parks On The Air stations. In the year since, I’ve become much more involved with (some would say addicted to) POTA, especially as an activator.
For the “base” operation of hunting other stations, I set up the FT-818 with an EFHW strung between the deck and some trees adjacent the nearby lake. The 26 ga polystealth wire antenna literally disappeared into the trees, the only giveaways being the 64:1 transformer floating in space off the deck rail and, more likely, the the bright orange arborist line used for the downhaul at the far end.
I made a few hunter QSOs during the morning hours from the cabin, but this location wasn’t hearing particularly well. Signals weren’t strong and I sent more than a few 229 reports. However, this “hunter mode”operation was secondary to my main objective of activating some new to me parks while on this trip.
On the first full day in the mountains we headed back down the hill a ways to visit Railtown State Historic Park in Jamestown, CA. After riding the excursion train and enjoying lunch by the roundhouse, I brought up the possibility of an activation. However, with the July heat well into the triple digits, the family wasn’t in the mood for dads radio obsession. Quite frankly, I wasn’t too excited about setting up the station in the heat, so it was an easy choice to put this one off for another time.
The next POTA activation opportunity came when we had made plans to head up for a day at Lake Alpine. We chose to go up to the lake around 10AM on Monday, hoping for smaller crowds. Also, we had plans to visit Calaveras Big Trees SP the following day.
This gave me an idea: I could make the short drive from the cabin up to Calaveras Big Trees (K-1134) in the morning while everyone was sleeping in and try to get the activation done before heading to Lake Alpine. This way the family visit to Big Trees wouldn’t be interrupted by dad playing radio.
Let me just mention here that “Big Trees” is no hype. These huge sequoias are truly giants towering majestically over the forest floor. My photos don’t do justice to the scale of these massive trees. “Awesome” is an appropriate reaction when standing underneath looking for the tops hundreds of feet above.
Anyway, even though it was early enough that the ranger station wasn’t even open yet, I didn’t want to activate from North Grove where the giants live and where park visitors might start turning up soon.
The scenic overlook offers an unobstructed takeoff to the east over the Sierra crest. And while an occasional car did show up, the average time spent at the overlook was about 30 seconds! I wasn’t going to be in anybody’s way here.
At first I set up my newly acquired MFJ-1979 17ft telescoping antenna as a 20M 1/4 wave vertical using a mag mount atop the car, but the best SWR I could get was over 2 to 1! I’d tried this antenna once before from my home park and got a perfect 1 to 1 match with the Mountain Topper so I knew it could work.
If you’ve ever watched the activation videos by Thomas (K4SWL) then you know that “I don’t have much time for this activation“ is practically his catch phrase! Now I found myself in the same situation, after spending 15 minutes on a failed setup it was now after 9AM and I needed to be back at the cabin by 10 o’clock.
A little recon revealed a picnic table in a clearing at the far end of the parking area, Bonanza! I quickly relocated there and set the MFJ whip on a tripod and spread out the radials. SWR 1.2 to 1 – good enough!
I started calling CQ POTA on 20M, the RBN heard me and triggered my pre-scheduled activation which posted me on the pota.app spots page. I worked six stations in fairly short order before propagation on 20 meters waned.
I wasn’t readily equipped to QSY to another band, so I was going to have to succeed or fail on 20M. After 15 minutes of no responses to my calling, the band cracked open a little and I put number 10 in the log at 16:47 UTC.
I quickly packed everything up and boogied back down the hill, reaching the cabin at ten minutes past 10AM, not bad!
While everyone was getting ready for our day at Lake Alpine, I used the cabin wifi to schedule an afternoon activation of Stanislaus National Forest (K-4468). There is no cell service east of the town of Murphys so access to wifi internet is a must for scheduling activations.
By the time we drove the 33 miles up Highway 4 to Bear Valley and Lake Alpine, got the kids out on the lake in a rented kayak, and set up the same station I used for Calaveras Big Trees, it was after 1pm.
Again the RBN did the trick and I was spotted from K-4468. While distances weren’t all that impressive this time, what really stands out for this activation is how quickly it got done. From the first contact to number 10 in the log the total elapsed time was a mere 12 minutes!
My plan was to hang out for a while and make even more contacts in a leisurely manner but a gust of wind kicked up and toppled my antenna, which I’d neglected to secure properly.
I took that as a sign, packed the station away and spent the rest of the afternoon lounging by the lake, trying not to get too sunburnt.
After action thoughts:
I suspect the reason I was getting less than the expected 1 to 1 match with the MFJ-1979 with the same radial system is due to the ground conductivity at my test site (K-7889) where the sandy soil is likely no more than a foot or two above a salt water saturated layer. Perhaps I need more radials when operating over less conductive mountain terrain.
And, I want come back to Jamestown in Autumn and bag Railtown SHP when the weather is cooler. In fact, this whole band of California’s foothill country along Highway 49 is particularly scenic in late September and early October.
73 de W6CSN
Check out more of Matt’s adventures at W6CSN.Blog.