N3HXZ: SOTA and POTA in the San Juan Islands!

Many thanks to Dale (N3HXZ) who shares the following guest post:

SOTA and POTA in the San Juan Islands

by Dale Ostergaard (N3HXZ)

My wife and I like to take educational tour vacations from time to time. The outfit we mostly use is Road Scholar.

The tours are geared around education and immersion in local cultures and experiences. In addition, you meet a lot of like-minded people on the tour and make new friends.  Last summer we wanted to take a vacation to the pacific northwest. We had never been there and came across a tour through the San Juan Islands. The islands are located north of Seattle and east of Vancouver. Touring the islands is made easy on a guided tour as they arrange for all transportation between islands and on land.

Washington State has an excellent network of ferries serving the island which makes for easy connections to the islands.

After we booked the vacation I began wondering if there were SOTA and POTA opportunities on the islands. I quickly looked up sites on the SOTA Goat app and the POTA website.  Low and behold there was a treasure trove of parks and summits!


Realizing the opportunity, I cross checked our itinerary with the parks and summits. The difficulty of course is that when you are on a guided tour, you have very little flexibility in the schedule, let alone transportation to go off on your own. After researching, I found 4 opportunities that included 3 parks and 1 summit. The parks were K-0061 San Juan National Historic Park, K-3223 Lime Kiln Point State Park, both on the island of San Juan, and K-3232 Moran State Park and summit W7W/RS-065 Mount Constitution on Orcas Island. The Summit lies inside the park so I had the opportunity to grab both with 1 activation.

With these activations in mind, I packed a minimal set of gear realizing that any activation had to be quick. I opted for my Elecraft KX2 transceiver and the Elecraft AX1 and AXE1 portable vertical antennas. I took along a mini tripod in case mounting the AX1 would be advantageous. I also packed the Elecraft KXPD2 keyer to have the rig ready to go out of the case.

On the first day of the tour we happened to stop at K-0061 and K-3223. I knew I did not have time to activate K-0061 but I sized it up for an activation later in the week when we had an afternoon of ‘free time’. As a side note, the San Juan National Historic Park is the location of where in 1859 the United States and Great Britan almost went to war over the shooting of a farmer’s pig. At that time there was ambiguity as to the boundary between Britan and the United States in the San Juan islands and the island was settled by both American citizens and British citizens. An American farmer shot a pig rooting through his farm. The pig was owned by a British citizen. A feud evolved and escalated. The US sent the 9th Infantry Regiment under the command of Captain George Pickett (of fame later during the Civil War Gettysburg campaign in 1863). An old stone statue commemorates his service.

Pickett had a redoubt (shown below) built under the supervision of 2nd Lieutenant Henry Martyn Robert who eventually authored the famous “Roberts Rules of Order”. Robert’s Redoubt is considered the best-preserved fortification of its kind in the United States. As we toured this site, I made note of the redoubt as a spot where I could operate later in the week. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the Pig War of 1859 was resolved peacefully.

K-3323 was an opportunity to activate since we had a lunch stop there. I looked at the Pota app and immediately was concerned. There had been only 1 successful activation in 4 attempts. After we arrived, I saw why. The park is at the base of a steep cliff, with no opportunity to get a signal out eastward.  The only hope was to reach stations along the west coast. I tried to activate, but in vain. After 10 minutes I had no contacts and decided to throw in the towel and rejoin the group for lunch. It was not a total loss, the scenery was beautiful. Had a chance to grab a picture of the Lime Kiln Point Lighthouse.

My attention turned to the next day when we were to take a ferry to Orcas Island and then a bus up to Mount Constitution. You quickly learn that any schedule is totally dependent on the ferries being on time! The day started with the Ferry being 30 minutes late. That did not bode well for my summit activation. Time would be cut out of that part of the tour in order to be on-time for the lunch reservation in town (priority for the majority of the tourists!). When we got to the bus parking area, about 100 yards from the summit, the tour guide announced that we had 40 minutes before the bus would leave for lunch. So I nodded to the YL, darted out of the bus and ran up a hill to reach the summit. Having studied the summit on Google Earth I knew instinctively where I was going to operate. There is a stone wall at the cliff of the mountain which is chest high; a perfect spot to operate from with my KX2 and AX1. The summit is 2400 ft. above sea level, the sea is immediately below the cliff. My hope was to get 4 contacts to have a valid summit activation.  I did not think I could realistically get 10 contacts to also validate the park activation in the time I had left.

It was a beautiful sight with unlimited visibility to the east. In three minutes I had the rig set and ready to activate. I spotted myself and was off to the races. A woman on the tour caught a photo of me in action.

To my surprise, the hunters were there in wait. I snagged my 4 required contacts in 4 minutes. Within 20 minutes I snagged another 7 contacts for a total of eleven, all on 20M at 10 Watts. Unfortunately, I had to leave a pile-up and pack up to get back to the bus on time.  I was the last one on the bus! Below is a map of the contacts.

The next day we had the afternoon off. We stayed in the town of Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. I checked into bus service and found a bus that could take me to the San Juan National Historic Park. So, I packed up and took the bus to the site.  I set up near the redoubt with the AX1 mounted on the small tripod.

It was a hot day in the sun and a bit uncomfortable.  Contacts were coming in slowly. After an hour and 10 minutes I finally reached my 10th contact and called it quits at that point. All contacts were on 20 M. I tried 30M and 40M without success. Below is the map of the contacts. The AX1 amazed me, even at sea level I was able to reach the eastern seaboard with 4 contacts on 10 watts.

The entire trip was memorable. Playing radio was a small portion of it but getting a chance to activate in a region of the country that you are not familiar with was extra special. With upfront preparation and planning, you can indeed activate parks and summits on a guided tour!

6 thoughts on “N3HXZ: SOTA and POTA in the San Juan Islands!”

  1. Great field report Dale! I love the San Juans, and am familiar with many of the Islands. I grew up near Seattle, and camping was our families way of making memories.

    Mount Constitution has a stone tower I believe, and it’s heights make for an impressive view, as well as a S/POTA site. Lime Point Light House, and Rouche Harbor are two other favorites.

    I was impress at the AX-1 as well. I’ve have sporadic success with it, but know from Thomas, and now you, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

    Fine business, and congradulations on your activations!

    de W7UDT

    1. Hi Randall, Thanks for the comments. Yes, the San Juan islands are beautiful and full of parks and summits! With regards to the AX-1, I have grown more comfortable with the antenna and I try to follow Elecraft’s tips; ” elevate the AX1 above ground by standing or using a tripod….seek high ground or an area with a downslope in a preferred direction”. I activated W3/WE-002 in Maryland last January, it is a rock outcropping which makes it nasty to deploy an antenna. But, it had a clear view so I pulled out the AX-1. I worked France to the east, and Arizona, Montana, and California to the west. The chasers out west who historically give be reliable RST numbers reported between 529-559. The AX-1 plays an important role in my bag of antennas, and I use it now with confidence under appropriate conditions.

  2. Hi Dale,

    What a great report, and I agree, isn’t that little AX1 coupled with the Elecraft radio amazing? I did the same this week set up on the shore of an island and I reached England from Connecticut.

    Thanks for sharing

  3. I too have had good results from the AX1. Living in an HOA community with antenna restrictions, I often use the AX1 mounted on a camera tripod with the base about 4 ft off the floor on my back porch (lanai in Florida lingo). QRP operation on daytime 20M from central Florida reliably carries me throughout the midwest (into NE, TX, NM, IA) and the northeast as far as Montreal. Can’t complain about “My semi-hidden indoor antenna.”

    I also enjoy Road Scholar tours, and I now know why there’s always one guy to be the last to get on the bus. 🙂

  4. I enjoyed reading this-I did a similar adventure on the other end of North America. Being from the PNW,(Oregon) we decided to trek all the way to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. I brought the KX2 and AX1 and set up on Signal Hill in St. John’s NL where Marconi first heard the famous ‘S’ from England in 1901. Although I didn’t get 10 contacts for POTA I did manage to snag EA6AAE in the Balearic Islands-all on 5W. The KX2/AX1 combo is a winner for portability and quick setup.

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