Many thanks to Conrad (N2YCH) who shares the following field report:
Conrad’s January Alaska Activation
By: Conrad Trautmann, N2YCH
“Why would you go to Alaska in January?” is what everyone asked me.
I’ve wanted to see the Northern Lights for as long as I can remember. The best time to see the aurora borealis is between late August to late April in Fairbanks, Alaska. Days are short in January, sunrise is at 10:24am local time and sunset is at 3:38pm. It’s twilight before the sun comes up and after it sets so it’s not pitch dark, but it’s mostly dark for about 19 hours a day in Fairbanks at this time of year. Once I began researching, I learned that peak viewing times for the aurora are between 10p and 2a local time even with the extended darkness. Check aurorasaurus.org for more information.
So, the answer to the question is, “The odds are better to catch the Northern Lights in the winter.”
Cold weather and snow doesn’t bother me having lived in Syracuse, New York for ten years. I have experience with winter weather and driving. Fairbanks is one of the best places in the state to see the aurora since it is directly below the “Aurora Oval” and it has over 100 days a year when the aurora is visible. Except for January 12th through the 15th, 2024, when the sky had 98% cloud cover and it was snowing. Aurora viewing was not happening during my visit.
However, this trip was not a total loss by any means. There are things to see and do here, including activating parks! I activated three parks in three days, Denali National Park (K-0022), Chena River State Recreation Area (K-7228) and Creamer’s Field Wildlife Refuge (K-9697). I’ve heard stories from hams in Alaska that propagation can be spotty, that there can be total radio blackouts from solar flares and that bands we don’t usually worry about in the lower 48, like 20 meters, can be useless at times. I packed enough equipment and antennas to activate on any band from 40 meters to 6 meters, up to 100 watts using my Elecraft KX3 with the Elecraft KXPA100 amplifier. On the first day at Denali, I used the amp for the entire activation, but I realized at the end of the day that Thomas, K4SWL, who runs “QRPer.com” wouldn’t be too happy with a field report from “QROer.com” Conrad, N2YCH. To remedy that, I activated my second park using just my KX3, no amp. At K-7228, my first 11 QSO’s were QRP and the park was officially activated using only QRP power. I activated my third park QRO, read on and I’ll explain why.
[Thomas here: For the record, readers, I gave Conrad a Special Use Permit to mention QRO on QRPer! Ha ha! Of course there’s no problem going QRO from time to time!]
Back to propagation, I emailed one of the most active POTA activators in the area prior to my trip to get a sense of what to expect. I highly recommend doing this for anyone planning to travel somewhere and activate. Look at the POTA pages for the parks you want to activate and you’ll surely see a repeat activator with a Kilo award or many visits to those parks. They know the parks the best and also what to expect for propagation. They also share your passion for POTA and are usually very happy to help. The advice I received was that it would be difficult to make contacts on 20 meters and that watching the MUF (maximum usable frequency) charts would serve me well. (Check out hf.dxview.org) The activator said 10 meters would probably be the best band during daylight hours. He was exactly right. Even with QRO power, 20 meter reception in Alaska was noisy and my signal did not get out very far on FT8 watching the pskreporter.com spot map. I moved to 10 meters and quickly had a steady pile up. I stayed on the air until I depleted a 9ah and a 3ah battery I brought. What fun!
Okay, so for the QRP activation, I was at a trailhead parking area out near the Chena Hot Springs resort. Before the activation, I stopped and did the tour of the Aurora Ice Museum and took a dip in the natural hot springs. I do recommend the hot springs if you ever go to Fairbanks. It was -10F degrees when I was there, quite an experience.
I intentionally wanted to delay my activation from early morning to closer to sunset to see if operating during the evening gray line passing over would help improve the number of contacts I could get. The short answer is that it was worse…way worse. I went back to activating closer to sunrise on my third day and had similar results as I did the first day, much better. Sunrise wins.
What really continues to amaze me is just how far my signal can reach with the portable equipment I was using. I brought the Buddipole so I could configure it as a vertical or a dipole. I tried it as a vertical on 20 meters on my first day and as I said, the reception was poor. The beauty of the Buddipole is that I could quickly reconfigure it to a 10 meter dipole. With the tripod, it’s roughly 10’ off the ground. There was no wind to speak of, so I didn’t need to guy it. If there was, I would have used a bungee cord to secure it to the car bumper or side mirror.
It breaks down and fits in the bag I bought with the Buddipole tripod and I tossed it into my checked bag on the plane. With the tripod and mast, it’s just a little too long for the carry-on bag. I could have brought a fiberglass push up mast and wire antennas in my carry-on, but I decided on the checked bag and brought the Buddipole to have as many options as possible. After all, I was traveling all the way to Alaska.
- Mindshift 18L Camera Bag Backpack for radio, cables, battery and computer (affiliate link)
- Apache 5800 Rolling Carry On Case
- Elecraft KX3 with CIV and audio cables
- Elecraft KXPA100 RF Amplifier
- Bioenno 1x 12V, 9Ah LFP Battery (PVC, BLF-1209A) – largest you can take on board an aircraft according to TSA rules
- Bioenno 12V, 3Ah LFP Battery (PVC, BLF-1203AB)
- Samsung Galaxy Book Flex2 Alpha 2 in 1 Laptop with Outdoor mode
- Sabrent USB external sound card adapter
- Buddipole Mast & Tripod
- Buddipole Antenna
- Buddipole 15’ RF coax and choke balun
- Two Alpha Antenna Telescoping Whip Antennas
One thing I’d like to mention about the antenna is that normally when I operate, I don’t pay too much attention to the orientation of the elements when using it configured as a dipole. I assume it’s mostly omnidirectional and where it’s pointed shouldn’t matter all that much. I know that technically there are lobes and nulls but I didn’t think it would make a big difference.
Well, when you’re at latitude 64, it matters more than you’d think. After struggling to make contacts for a while, I used my iPhone compass to see where the driven element (the element connected to the RF cable center conductor) was aiming. It was pointed East. I turned it to aim it to the South and I started making more contacts. It was a noticeable improvement. After seeing the improvement here, I paid close attention to orientation at my next park as well. I couldn’t check pskreporter to validate performance or directionality during this activation since there was absolutely no cell or data service.
For all of my QRP friends, here is my explanation for running QRO with the amp: Alaska, as I discovered first hand, is not an easy state to make contacts with in general.
When I activate a park, as much as I enjoy the QRP challenge for me, I’m also thinking of providing opportunities for the hunters to get the park. Parks in Alaska aren’t activated as often as many other states, especially in the winter and once I was spotted, I had pileups unlike any other activation I’ve done. I’d describe it as a mini-DXpedition. I’m proud to say I activated a park in Alaska QRP. It’s a big accomplishment and it is possible to do–see the map above. However, adding the amplifier provided more opportunities with my limited time there for the POTA hunters to hear me and get the park, which was my goal as well. With that said, scroll down to see my QRO maps and some photos of the other parks I activated.
Thanks for reading and to all of the hunters out there who helped me activate and get credit for my 20th state.