K3ES Travels: Ten Days of QRP with Compromised Antennas

Ocracoke, NC, home to this iconic lighthouse, was our destination for a week of relaxation.  Ten days of QRP operation was a happy consequence.

Ten Days of QRP with Compromised Antennas

by Brian (K3ES)

At the end of a hard (or even a not-so-hard) winter, Becky and I really enjoy the opportunity to spend a week at the beach with friends.  Even with the cooler and more unpredictable weather late in the off-season, it provides welcome relief from the cold and snow that we often get in northwest Pennsylvania.  This year we chose to visit Ocracoke Island, at the southern tip of the North Carolina Outer Banks.

While driving down and back, I fit in Parks on the Air (POTA) activations at parks in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.  Each of the activated parks was new to me, and  so were their states.  My time at the beach also included daily POTA hunting.  I knew that my radio activity would all be conducted using CW mode, and low power.  All of my contacts on this trip were made with 5 watts, except for a brief stint where I increased power to 10 watts to fight band noise during a longer QSO with my code buddy.  What I did not expect was that all of my contacts would be made using antenna configurations that were less efficient than normal.

At each of the activated parks, I paired my Elecraft KX2 with a brand new Elecraft AX1 vertical antenna.  While it proved very effective at making contacts, the 4 ft high AX1 vertical definitely compromises gain to achieve its tiny form factor for HF operations.  Once we moved into our rented house on the island, we knew that storms were expected.  In fact, gale warnings were issued for our area twice during our week-long stay.  Besides cutting off ferry service to the island, I feared that high winds would bring down any antenna mast that I might try to use.  So, I deployed my shortest wire antenna in a low configuration that I hoped would resist the wind, yet still enable some contacts.  I certainly did not expect it to perform like it had many times before when deployed in vertical or inverted V configurations, but proof would be in the contacts.  I will avoid suspense by saying that this installation was unaffected by the high winds that were predicted and received.


[Note: All Amazon, CW Morse, ABR, Chelegance, eBay, and Radioddity links are affiliate links that support QRPer.com at no cost to you.]

Monocacy National Battlefield – US-0705

Monocacy National Battlefield, US-0705, is located near the junction of Interstates 70 and 270 at Frederick, MD.

Our trip south took us close enough for a visit to our 3-year old grandson and his parents.  Truth be told, any distance would have been close enough, so even though greater-Baltimore is slightly off the direct path, that was the destination for our first day of driving.  On the way to Baltimore, we also passed within a couple of miles of the Monocacy National Battlefield, near Frederick, MD.  So, we spent a couple of hours exploring interpretive displays at the Visitor Center, and of course, activating the park.

As a Civil War history buff, I knew of the Battle of Monocacy, but little about its details.  Briefly, in July of 1864 a small Union force faced off against a much larger Confederate Army led by Lieutenant General Jubal Early.  The Confederates were moving against Washington, DC in an attempt to take the pressure off of the defenders around the Confederate capital of Richmond, VA.  While the battle was a tactical defeat for the Union, it proved to be a strategic victory, because it delayed the Confederate advance for two crucial days.  In that time Washington’s defenses were strongly reinforced, so the Confederate Army withdrew back into the Shenandoah Valley without accomplishing its mission.  More on that later.

A picnic table near a wood line outside the visitor center made a perfect, unobtrusive location to activate US-0705.

For the activation, I set up my station at a picnic table.  A table top tripod supported the AX1 antenna, with a short piece of RG316 coaxial cable connecting it to the KX2.  I operated CW mode with 5 watts of power, and completed the activation with 11 contacts in less than 15 minutes.

The entire station, including table-top AX1, took up less than half of a picnic table.
Logging contacts…
Cannons overlooking the battlefield…
Map of contacts from US-0705.  Home QTH for one station is located at the south pole!

Operating from Ocracoke Island, NC

A week at Ocracoke…

We arrived on Ocracoke on the last ferry run to the island before a Gale Warning shut down service for two days.  We counted ourselves fortunate to be on the island, but gale force winds complicated deployment of antennas.  Except, that is, for the AX1.

Needing a quick bit of radio therapy in defiance of the wind, I set up the little vertical inside the sheltered back porch.  It sat nicely on a low table, and enabled me to hunt four POTA activators operating CW mode on the 20m band.  The highlight of the operating session was the contact never made.  I assisted in coaching a CW Innovations class on Comprehensive Instant Character Recognition, that had just ended.  One of the class members was activating a POTA park in Costa Rica on 15m CW!  I could hear his signal clearly with my tiny antenna, but never managed to break through the pile-up.  A contact would have been great, but it was awesome to listen as Greg confidently worked station after station after station!

The front porch for our home for the week at Ocracoke.  My antenna was out of view to the left, over and across the side porch.

The next day we had a short period of calm, as the wind dropped off.  I took full advantage by deploying my Tufteln 9:1 EFRW antenna with 35 ft radiator and 17 ft counterpoise.  Expecting that the wind speed would increase again (it did), I decided against putting up my 30 ft mast to hold the antenna.  Instead, I kept the 9:1 unun just inside of a window, and ran the two wires out beneath the window sash.

The excellent 26 gauge Poly-Stealth antenna wire was thin enough and strong enough that I could fully close the sash without damaging the window or the wires.  Outside, I routed the radiating wire up and over an outdoor shower enclosure, then back down over the end of the deck, connecting the end to a convenient bush.  I routed the counterpoise down, across the narrow width of the deck and down again to the ground, with about the last 5 ft of wire lying on the ground.  The final configuration was a shallow inverted V with the apex about 12 ft above ground level, and a very marginal counterpoise.

With the antenna installed as described, I was able to make 46 additional QRP contacts by hunting POTA activators over the course of our week at Ocracoke.  I also had a brief conversation with my Code Buddy, Al – N4EII, but band conditions made copy progressively more difficult, even after I increased power to 10 watts.

A map showing QSOs made from Ocracoke Island.

Homeward Bound

We left Ocracoke on an early morning ferry for a 2-1/2 hour trip to the mainland, then started our drive back toward Pennsylvania.  We decided to stop for the night in western Virginia, and finish our trip at a more leisurely pace the next day.

That day, Easter Sunday, started cool and overcast, but the sky cleared and the temperature warmed as the day went on.  We took advantage of the beautiful weather by stopping at two parks along the way, and of course taking time for a POTA activation at each.

Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Historic Park – US-0730

As Easter Sunday was a travel day on our way home, the Visitor Center at Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Historic Park, and other Park interpretive facilities were closed.  We were still able to enjoy the extensive outdoor areas of the park.

The Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Historic Park is located in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, preserving the site of a Civil War battle from October 1864.  Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate army (remember him from Monocacy?) surprised a larger Union force commanded by Major General Philip Sheridan with an early morning attack.

Early hoped that a Confederate victory in the battle would encourage war-weary northerners to vote Abraham Lincoln out of office in the Presidential Election that was just weeks away.  He came close.  The attack routed a large portion of the Union force, resulting in panic and heavy losses. General Sheridan was able to rally his troops and turn the tide.

Early’s Confederate army was forced to retreat in the afternoon.  Even worse, their supply wagons and artillery were captured after a bridge collapse prevented their escape.  Ultimately, the Union victory at Cedar Creek assured Lincoln’s re-election, and ended Confederate operations in the Shenandoah Valley.

We stopped near the Belle Grove plantation house, where a plaque provided information about the Cedar Creek Battle.
The beautiful Belle Grove plantation house and grounds were closed, so the nearby picnic tables were not available.

Being Easter, most of the Park buildings and interpretive areas were closed, so I set up to activate at the top of a set of stone steps next to a parking lot.  A flat stone porch at the top of the steps proved to be an excellent location for the AX1 antenna, the KX2, and the operator.

I initially had success on 20m, but contacts tapered off, and I switched over to 30m to complete the activation.  Changing the AX1 from 20m to 30m takes a bit of effort.  First, it is necessary to insert a second coiled tuning section into the antenna stack-up.  Then a 33 ft counterpoise wire must be used in place of the 17 ft wire used for the higher bands.  The easy part of the change comes from correctly positioning a slide switch on the coil, and activating the KX2’s autotuner.  With this configuration change, I was able to complete the activation with a total of 13 contacts (7 on 20m and 6 on 30m) in 60 minutes.

Instead, I was able to use the stone steps and porch of an outbuilding near the parking lot to set up my station and activate US-0730.
A very compact station.
Map of contacts from US-0730.

While I completed the activation, Becky enjoyed some time for photography, and a walk.  As she returned, she found me packing up the station, so that we could resume our trip.  The next leg of the trip took us over the border into West Virginia, with the opportunity to stop for my first activation of a park in that state.

Berkeley Springs State Park – US-1801

Berkeley Springs State Park had a number of visitors on Easter afternoon.

Our drive took us through the picturesque town of Berkeley Springs, WV.  Berkeley Springs State Park is located right in the middle of town.

The park is home to a mineral spa that has been in use since colonial times, with warm water springs that flow year-round at a constant 74.3 degrees Fahrenheit.  The town, the Park, and the springs are located near the bottom of a valley, so I expected that being surrounded by high hills while using a compromised antenna, would make this activation particularly difficult.

Early spring in Berkeley Springs State Park.

The park is small, and it was busier than I had expected.  There were even children swimming in the warm spring water on the last day of March, and they seemed to be enjoying the experience.  So, I did a bit of exploring, and located an out-of-the-way picnic table that would be perfect for my activation.

Once again, the AX1 kept my station small and unobtrusive.  The counterpoise was my only concern, and my picnic table was located close to a creek, which I hoped minimize foot traffic in the area containing my wire, and so it proved.  My entire operating station took up one end of the picnic table.  Using CW mode and wearing earbuds kept the operation very quiet.  I had curious on-lookers, but no visitors.

Activating at a picnic table along the creek.
I set up, so that my counterpoise could run along the creek, minimizing the chance that it would inconvenience other users of the park.
Once again, the AX1 enabled me to use less than half of a picnic table to set up my station.
Map of contacts from US-1801.  Surprisingly, contacts included a DX station from Spain.

At this time, and in this location, 20m was productive for me.  I logged 11 contacts in a half-hour.  It was a leisurely pace, but still quite satisfying, given the terrain and antenna.  Once again, Becky was able to spend some time taking photographs and walking around the park.

Becky’s Big Idea

Becky has always been very supportive of my strange addiction to POTA activating.  She is really a good sport about it.  She takes pictures of me, my equipment, and my surroundings.  She proof-reads my field reports, helping readers by fixing misspelled words and poor grammar, by reducing my redundancy, and by encouraging me to smooth out my stilted phrases.  She even puts up with my excitement about CW, band conditions, field kits, antennas, radios, and innumerable other subjects that could only excite field activators within the Amateur Radio community.

So, I was not surprised when, during our drive home from Ocracoke, she turned to me and asked:  “How many states have you activated?”  At that point, having activated in Maryland, but before activating in Virginia, and West Virginia, the answer turned out to be six.

Since I was driving, I talked her through accessing my POTA account and looking at My Awards page.  The visual presentation of activated states worked for her.  She saved a screen shot on her phone, so that she could track my progress by personally marking off Virginia and West Virginia.

From the POTA.app My Awards page, here are my Activated US States.

Then it came:  “You should activate all of the states.”

Well, that was short, sweet, and to the point.  In my professional career, I learned that objectives should be SMART:  Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bounded.  On that basis:

Objective Element Assessment
Specific Yep.  Activating at least one park in each of the 50 states is definitely specific.
Measurable Yep.  To date, I have now activated in 8 states, and My Awards page on POTA.app has a visual record.
Achievable Well…  It has been done before…
Realistic Ummm…  Eight is a long way from 50, so it seems like a big stretch.  But then, management generally likes stretch goals…
Time-Bounded Uggghhh…  No time frame has been set.  If I were to negotiate with management, I would use units of decades, and I’m not sure I have enough of them left…

Of course management has ulterior motives.  Becky thinks about taking a cruise to Alaska, seeing horses in Kentucky, returning for another visit to Greenfield Village in Michigan, taking another trip to Disney World in Florida, eating lobster rolls in Maine, oh…, and she has never visited Rhode Island…   So, I guess I had better buckle my seat-belt, because it is going to be an interesting (partially POTA) ride.


As I gained experience with my new AX1 antenna during 3 park activations and a day of hunting POTA contacts from our rented house on Ocracoke Island, I became firmly convinced that it was a terrific addition to my QRP radio kit.  Not only were all of the activations successful, but the footprint of the antenna was tiny.

I will choose to use this antenna in environments where throw-lines, masts, and wire antennas are not welcomed, and I do so with confidence in its ability to make contacts.

I also had great experience with deploying my short EFRW antenna in a compromised configuration, and as with the AX1, I made contacts.

The bottom line is that a compromised antenna is first and foremost, an antenna.  Yes, other antennas will yield better signal reports, but a compromised antenna will produce contacts when other antennas cannot be used.

16 thoughts on “K3ES Travels: Ten Days of QRP with Compromised Antennas”

  1. What an outstanding travel/field report, Brian!

    I’ve been to Ocracoke Island off-season and, like you, was fortunate with the ferry timing.

    It sounds like you and Becky had a wonderful time and I must thank you for taking us along on the ride!


    1. Good evening Thomas, i saw your post and since i found you i have the opportunity to ask you a question. I watched your videos of various park activations in CW POTA i also saw your activation log. Now comes the question?, i didn’t see any RST written in the log, why?, and if ” YES ” how do you know the RST report transmitted and received?. Thank you Thomas. 72′ Peter YO8CDQ

  2. Looks like a fun trip OM. And let’s hear it for CW, the mode that compensates for short antennas multiplied by QRP.

    I also recently made POTA contacts on 30 meters using a short loaded vertical that is a serious compromise on anything lower than 14 Mhz. Not a lot of contacts and my signal reports weren’t huge, but the compromised antenna you deploy will certainly work better than the full size resonant antenna you leave in the trunk.


    1. Thanks Matt!

      The AX1, with QRP and CW mode can make contacts. It is definitely NOT a dummy load. Of course, Thomas has made contacts on video using a purpose-built dummy load. ????

      Best 73 de Brian – K3ES

  3. Great report Brian! Superior equipment = superior results. Rig, antenna and especially the touch paddles. I have both sizes and they really do make activations easy, no big paddles to bounce around, no table necessary. Hope to hear about the next 42 states!!

    1. Hi Dean,

      I love the VK3IL pressure paddles! I’ve built both 100 mm and 63 mm versions. My preference is the 63 mm length, with a bit of closed cell foam padding under the heat shrink wrapper. Only caution is that they can be hard to use with cold fingers…

      Best 73 de Brian – K3ES

  4. Brian-Glad you and Becky were able to visit our wild Outer Banks and Ocracoke Island and Lighthouse. Lots of history there, beginning in the late 1500’s. The ferry ride is a treat. Sounds like a creative antenna situation to the weather. Glad you were able to visit really nice historic sites.

    1. Thanks Bob,

      It was a great trip, and a nice break from NW PA WX (there was a new coating of snow on the ground when we left for OBX).

      Best 73 de Brian – K3ES

  5. Great article about how to do low impact POTA activations.

    It is obvious from the pictures that your gear choices and more importantly, your setup location choices at the sites, allowed you to do the activations without being a nuisance to the other visitors or staff – Great Work!

    1. Thanks Steve!

      Also, CW mode with ear buds is virtually noiseless for others in the area.

      Best 73 de Brian – K3ES

  6. Fantastic trip, thanks for sharing with us.

    I think that having a few antenna options available when doing POTA is a good idea, and certainly a low-visual “stealth antenna” that deploys quickly is an excellent idea.

    Cheers and best of luck with your POTA goals. I look forward to your future guest postings on QRPer.com.

    72 de VE3WMB

    1. Thanks Michael.

      The AX1 is proving to be a great new tool in my POTA kit! I love being unobtrusive, if not undetectable. ????

      Best 73 de Brian – K3ES

  7. Thanks for the report! Over 20 years in this hobby, I also realized that a supportive wife is very important. Traveling together and radio are just a reason to go somewhere you haven’t been yet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.