DITs and DAHs from Alcatraz
by Leo (DL2COM)
San Francisco Radio Diary – Part 1
“No way!” I said to myself when I saw that Alcatraz Island is an official Parks-on-the-air (POTA) reference which has only been activated four times by two operators.
It surprised me that such a historically relevant site hasn’t seen more ham radio activity in the past – or maybe it has, just not for POTA. I then got super excited as I was packing my bags for San Francisco.
I have missed this foggy beauty so much and it has been many years since I visited the city. I won’t bore you with the ordeal of our travel but it included canceled flights, multiple delays and rescheduling via Berlin and London the next day due to a hostage situation at Hamburg airport. So our already super short trip of 4.5 days shrunk into a good 3 days in SF. So which things to cross off the schedule now? It was clear that this unfortunate situation was certainly not going to eat into my activation budget. Hell no!
I admit since watching “The Rock” (1996) Alcatraz has always been a place of mystery and fascination to me. Those who are interested in reading more about the former fort, military prison and federal penitentiary can do so here.
After I learned that it was also a CW ATNO I instantly said: “Done deal. The ink is dry. I will activate with morse code in the shadows of Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris”. Of course I would do it plain vanilla style throwing good ol’ wires in trees and staking pointy things in the ground. Yeah right. Sometimes passion does tend to carry you away a wee bit so a little later I gathered myself and started doing some research.
Apparently the first POTA pioneer on Alcatraz was KC1MIJ who managed to get 5 QSOs in with an FM HT in July 2021. I’d say that’s pretty awesome for a location almost as low as sea level. The first successful activation was done on December 3rd 2021 by Elizabeth “Liz” N6LY and her husband Kevin K6YD. Since then both of them had only been back one time in December 2022 for another day to achieve a whopping cumulative 761 phone QSOs in only two days of total operation. Wow! What an achievement. No other hams have tried to activate Alcatraz since.
I didn’t hesitate to write Liz an email and ask about her experience operating from the island as I knew it would probably require some preparation. The POTA website also stated that a permit from the National Park Service (NPS) is required. Luckily Liz replied swiftly with a lot of helpful information and I am very thankful for the email exchange. She specifically pointed out that it is in fact necessary to get a permit (even for simple HT activity) and that she had already applied in July for another day activity this coming December. They are still waiting to hear back from NPS’s office so it does seem quite hard to get approval for a “proper” activation. It is understandable that folks there want to have control over an organized operation where antennas, 100w radios, chairs etc. might need to be set up. With so many tourists visiting each day they also want to make sure that any activity doesn’t interfere with their core business especially on weekends.
Since I really didn’t want to spoil any of the hard preparatory work with NPS that Liz and Kevin had done for the ham radio community as well as respect local processes I wrote an email to the Alcatraz Rangers Office asking for a permit only a few days before my arrival. I knew it was a long shot and highly unlikely that they’d get back to me in time. So I called them every morning and afternoon the days after to follow up but was unsuccessful reaching them on any channel. By that point I had almost given up. However there were plenty of other options for activations so I had a blast in/on several SOTA/POTA references in SF which I will report on later.
On our last day I woke up and thought “Man, I can’t just leave the Bay Area and not activate Alcatraz.” Since one of my appointments got canceled short-term I didn’t think long, jumped on an Uber to Pier 33 and off I was (yeeeees, online tickets were still available).
The idea was to show up as a tourist, speak to the rangers on-site and ask them for official permission. Chances were small but it was a weekday so why not give it a shot. The worst that could happen was to have a nice morning and finally get to see Alcatraz first-hand. On the ferry I already prepared my KX-2 with the AX-1 antenna so I had something to show them and prove that my approach would be a Walkie-Talkie-like, super low footprint, time-limited operation with headphones and no audible sound – the beauty of CW.
15 minutes later I arrived and listened to a nice welcoming speech with some instructions and ground rules from one of the rangers that is given to all people who arrive by boat. After she finished I walked over and had a chat with the very kind rangers and security guards in their office. I explained that I am a licensed ham radio operator and if it would be possible to “make some quick contacts with my HT here” and that I had already contacted the main office about a permit. The reaction was, let’s say, less than enthusiastic.
And I get that. Amateur radio is new to most people and if you’ve never heard of it it is kind of hard to form an opinion about it on the fly or better yet understand the exact impact it may have on tourist operations on the island. Someone raised concerns that I might interfere with coast guard radio but also here you can’t blame anyone for not knowing how this whole regulated HF spectrum game works. Fair enough. One ranger said he wouldn’t have a problem with it but he was not authorized to give out a permit. What he offered though was to use the radio of his own to call the supervisor. The supervisor was superb. He was aware of past and future ham radio activities and asked a few questions about my activation style. We settled with this: 30 mins to 1h max. spontaneous operation HT-style but with headphones, without a mic and away from groups of people. So as silent and unobtrusive as possible – Jackpot. Elecraft’s pedestrian mobile setup for the win & a big Thank You to NPS for making this possible!
I was already short on time for my flight back home so I quickly walked up a not-too-steep incline to find myself on a large flat area called the Parade Ground at the south-east side. All the way across I spotted almost nobody and the area was free of RF blocking structures so I thought this could be perfect. When I arrived I understood why nobody was there: The entire ground was covered in sea bird poop and let me tell you this stuff is pretty intense. Not the typical countryside odor (got some of it on my backpack and it is almost impossible to get off).
I set up on the last clean bit of a wooden bench, got the 90° BNC adapter and knee field desk out because who can blame a tired man for taking a quick break from being a pedestrian and placing his HT on his lap right?
The AX-1 naturally sports 20m and 17m without an additional coil and I did not want to take out the long counterpoise wire. I was on the air in 2 minutes and started calling CQ on 20m. To be honest QSOs came in rather slowly at first. Of course I had not added this activation on https://pota.app/#/ beforehand so a simple spot on a Thursday morning needed to make do. On top a solar storm was already active. Hence I was really struggling and at some point I thought this might not end with 10 in the log in the short time that I had. Eventually I switched to 17m and got another 3 QSOs in before I went back to 20m and then happily ended with 14 QSOs incl. one P2P after about 42 minutes.
Two-fer glory: The log is also good for K-0647 Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Just in time to pack up, do a quick round across the island and jump on the ferry back to the city.
Me on the plane: “Could I have a large beer please?”
When I landed in Gemany I found an email from Kevin in my inbox welcoming me to the “Alcatraz Club”. Hi. That’s what I call ham spirit.
- Elecraft KX-2 incl. internal ATU, battery & charging module
- Elecraft AX-1 antenna incl. 13’ counterpoise wire
- Tufteln knee board field desk
- Palm Radio Mini Paddle
- Goruck GR-1 backpack (26L)
– vy 73 de Leo W6/DL2COM