Category Archives: CW

Impromptu POTA activation using the Elecraft AX1 Antenna

A few weeks ago, I posted a report about doing my first park activation with the Elecraft AX1 super compact antenna. If anything, I felt the activation almost went *too* well using such a small antenna. I didn’t want to give others the impression this is all the antenna you’ll ever need–it’s just a brilliant compact antenna designed for convenience and accessibility. It’s a fun field companion and can be used pretty much anywhere.

Yesterday morning, I had a number of errands to run on the south side of Asheville and had not planned to do a POTA activation. While I was waiting on a curbside delivery, however, I was admiring the nice weather and thinking that I might venture out later in the day to do a Parks On The Air (POTA) activation. Part of me knew, though, that if I returned home, I’d get involved with projects and never make it back out to the field.

I always carry a transceiver and antenna in my car, so I opened the trunk and found my Elecraft KX2 transceiver field kit which included the Elecraft AX1 antenna. Technically, that’s a whole station! Why not give it a go–? I’m always up for a challenge.

Since I would be passing by the Blue Ridge Parkway on the way home, I quickly scheduled an activation on the POTA website via my phone so that the spotting system would know to grab my information from the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) when I started calling CQ.

Blue Ridge Parkway (K-3378)

I knew this might not be an “easy” activation: I would be using a super compact field antenna that’s quite a compromise in terms of performance, propagation wasn’t exactly stellar, and I was activating a popular (hence somewhat stagnant) park on a Monday morning. Not necessarily ideal ingredients for a successful activation.

I also discovered my phone tripod in the trunk of the car, so decided to make one of my real-time, real-life, no edit videos of the entire successful or failed activation. (Hint: It turned out to be a success.)

Gear:

If you’d like to accompany me on this park activation, check out my video on YouTube:

At the end of the day, the AX1 continues to impress me. It is a compromise? Yes. Does it perform as well as a resonant wire antenna? No. Can it activate a park as well as my other antennas? Yes.

AX1 QSO Map

Click to enlarge

No doubt, part of my success with the AX1 is because I’m primarily using CW instead of SSB to complete activations. I’ve made SSB contacts with the AX1, but I’ve never completed full park activations with it yet–in truth, though, I’ve never tried.

In fact, perhaps it’s just a lucky streak, but so far the AX1 has been as effective as many of my wire antennas in terms of simply completing valid park activations in less than an hour. My signal reports aren’t as strong as they would be with, say, my EFT-MTR resonant antenna or Emcomm III Portable random wire antenna, but it’s enough to get the job done.

If nothing else, I’ll admit that the AX1 reminds me of the magic of low-power radio each time I use it. When I log stations hundreds of miles away, with such a modest station, I feel like I’ve accomplished something.

In short? It’s fun to use.

Black Friday Sale

FYI: I just received Elecraft’s latest Black Friday 2020 ad and noticed that the AX1 antenna package (which doesn’t include the 40M extension) is on sale. Click here to check it out.

Assembling the MFJ-561K Miniature Travel Iambic Paddle Kit

MFJ Enterprises has an amazingly deep catalog of products. So deep, I often overlook items that could be quite useful in the field.

MFJ recently sent me one of their travel paddle kits to evaluate on QRPer.com–no doubt, they heard my plea for paddle recommendations some time ago.

Paddles are a funny thing: they’re basically a very simple switch, so not terribly difficult to homebrew. Yet sometimes we want to simply purchase pre-made paddles instead of building them.

I don’t personally want to invest crazy money in field paddles because there’s a reasonable chance they could get damaged in my pack or I could even leave them on the forest floor after a POTA/SOTA activation.

Plus, paddles aren’t the weak link in my CW game (ahem, yeah…you might have guessed it’s the operator–!).

The price of MFJ-561K paddles hits a sweet spot at  $25 US. I know of no other paddles made in the US that are cheaper (although I know I might stand corrected on this point).

For $25, you’re not getting Begali quality: you’re getting something that’s simple and gets the job done.

The MJF-561K is actually a simple kit that you assemble at home. It’s a novice build for sure, taking (generously) 20 minutes to assemble and requiring no kit building experience. You will need to use a soldering iron to attach the three conductor wire to your paddles–otherwise, it feels more like a mini Meccano or Erector set.

At one point early in the build, I did find myself looking for a detailed photo to determine how the shoulder washers were placed. I couldn’t find one, so I decided to take my own photos to help anyone else building these paddles in the future.

MJF-561K Assembly Photos

Click on the photos below to enlarge:

The shoulder washer fits in the hole on the inside of the paddle as you can see on the upper paddle lever. The larger washer goes on the outside of the paddle, insulating the solder lug and Kep nuts.

One bolt and Kep nut holds the back of the paddles to the base.

This image shows how the center contact is screwed in. Note that another solder lug is held in place under the paddles and is not in this photo, but shown in the photo below.
Once you’ve attached the bottom solder lug and Kep nut, position the center contact (on top) so that it floats between both paddle contacts before tightening down.
Next, you’ll need to strip the supplied three conductor cable, tin the ends, and solder them to the three solder lugs. Check your radio manual to determine which side of the paddle to solder the tip and ring wires based on which side of the paddles will send dits and dahs.

Hint: when attaching the cable tie/strain relief, position the cable tie locking point so that it faces up rather than down (to avoid that part of the cable tie interfering with rubber feet contact.
Next, attach the rubber feet to the base.
And, finally, attach the rubber pads to the paddles

On the air

The building process was super simple as you can see from the photos above. I didn’t test the paddles in advance to make sure the shoulder washers were insulating the contacts properly, nor did I test that my ring/tip placement was correct before soldering. I would suggest you do this!

Fortunately, I plugged it into the Yaesu FT-817ND and it worked perfectly!

The paddles are lightweight and the action reminds me very much of Whiterook Paddles.

Any criticisms? For the price, these are brilliant. With that said, I wish the three conductor wire was just a bit heavier gauge. The conductors are very thin and I do worry how well they’ll hold with heavy use. Of course, it’s an easy process to replace this cable with one of my own.  Also, like most lightweight backpack paddles, the thin metal sheet base needs to be held in place while operating.

I think I might attach the paddles directly to a clipboard. If I drill two holes in the paddle base, I could mount them with small bolts onto the clipboard and remove them when done. I’ll give this some thought.

For $25, the MJF-561K paddles are a no-brainer.  I see keeping a set of these for ultralight operating and perhaps even as a set of backup paddles. And, hey! They’re a great stocking stuffer idea. I would suggest MFJ consider making a single-lever version as well.

Click here to check out the MJF-561K paddles at MFJ.

Yaesu FT-817ND: Mechanical CW filter suggestions?

I mentioned in a previous post that I recently purchased a Yaesu FT-817ND package from a friend. The Yaesu had a number of upgrades including an Inrad SSB filter. Thing is, I rarely need a filter when operating phone, but desperately need one for CW since the the default filter width is quite wide.

Although I plan to purchase a SOTAbeams Laserbeam-817, I’d still like a narrow mechanical filter for the one available filter spot on the FT-817ND.

It seems the YF-122CN (300 Hz Collins Mechanical Filter) is no longer manufactured. Used prices can be quite high.

I’m curious if anyone has suggestions for alternative narrow CW filters? Please comment if you have any advice!

POTA Field Report: Elecraft KX1 and two wires yield 1,100 miles per watt

Yesterday, my family decided to make an impromptu trip to one of our favorite spots on the Blue Ridge Parkway at Richland Balsam–the highest point on the BRP.

Of course, it was a good opportunity to fit in a Parks On The Air (POTA) activation, but I had also hoped to activate Richland Balsam for Summits On The Air (SOTA) simultaneously.

It being well beyond leaf-looking season, we had hoped the BRP would be relatively quiet, but we were wrong.

Trail heads were absolutely jam-packed and overflowing with visitors and hikers. We’ve noticed a sharp hiker uptick this year in western North Carolina due in no small part to the Covid-19 pandemic. People see hiking as a safe “social-distance” activity outdoors, but ironically, hiker density on our single-track trails is just through the roof.   One spends the bulk of a hike negotiating others on the trail.

The trail head to Richland Balsam was no exception. Typically, this time of year, we’d be the only people parked at the trail head but yesterday it was nearly parked full.

Being natives of western North Carolina, we know numerous side-trails and old logging/service roads along the parkway, so we picked one of our favorites very close to Richland Balsam.

We hiked to the summit of a nearby ridge line and I set up my POTA station with the “assistance” of Hazel who always seems to know how to get entangled in my antenna wires.

“I’m a helper dog!”

Taking a break from using the Icom IC-705, I brought my recently reacquired  KX1 field radio kit.

Gear:

I carried a minimal amount of gear on this outing knowing that there would be hiking involved. Everything easily fit in my GoRuck Bullet Ruck backpack (including the large arborist throw line) with room to spare.

I took a bit of a risk on this activation: I put faith in the wire antenna lengths supplied with my new-to-me Elecraft KX1 travel kit. I did not cut these wires myself, rather, they are the lengths a previous owner cut, wound, and labeled for the kit.

With my previous KX1, I knew the ATU was pretty darn good at finding matches for 40, 30, and 20 meters on short lengths of wire, so I threw caution to the wind and didn’t pack an additional antenna option (although I could have hiked back to the car where I had the CHA MPAS Lite–but that would have cut too much time from the activation).

I didn’t use internal batteries in the KX1, rather, I opted for my Bioenno 6 aH LiFePo battery which could have easily powered the KX1 the entire day.

I deployed the antenna wire in a nearby (rather short) tree, laid the counterpoise on the ground, then tried tuning up on the 40 meter band.

No dice.

The ATU was able to achieve a 2.7:1 match, but I don’t like pushing QRP radios above a 2:1 match if I don’t have to. I felt the radiator wire was pretty short (although I’ve yet to measure it), so clipping it would only make it less resonant on 40 meters.

Instead, I moved up to the 20 meter band where I easily obtained a 1:1 match.

I started calling CQ POTA and within a couple of minutes snagged two stations–then things went quiet.

Since I was a bit pressed for time, I moved to the 30 meter band where, once again, I got a 1:1 match.

I quickly logged one more station (trusty N3XLS!) then nothing for 10 minutes.

Those minutes felt like an eternity since I really wanted to make this a quick activation. I knew, too, that propagation was fickle; my buddy Mike told me the Bz numbers had gone below negative two only an hour before the activation. I felt like being stuck on the higher bands would not be to my advantage.

Still, I moved back up to 20 meters and try calling again.

Then some radio magic happened…

Somehow, a propagation path to the north west opened up and the first op to answer my call was VE6CCA in Alberta. That was surprising! Then I worked K3KYR in New York immediately after.

It was the next operator’s call that almost made me fall off my rock: NL7V in North Pole, Alaska.

In all of my years doing QRP field activations, I’ve never had the fortune of putting a station from Alaska in the logs. Alaska is a tough catch on the best of days here in North Carolina–it’s much easier for me to work stations further away in Europe than in AK.

Of all days, I would have never anticipated it happening during this particular activation as I was using the most simple, cheap antenna possible: two thin random lengths of (likely discarded) wire.

People ask why I love radio? “Exhibit A”, friends!

After working NL7V I had a nice bunch of POTA hunters call me. I logged them as quickly as I could.

I eventually moved back to 30 meters to see if I could collect a couple more stations and easily added five more. I made one final CQ POTA call and when there was no answer, I quickly sent QRT de K4SWL and turned off the radio.

Here’s a map of my contacts from QSOmap.org:

I still can’t believe my three watts and a wire yielded a contact approximately 3,300 miles (5311 km) away as the crow flies.

This is what I love about field radio (and radio in general): although you do what you can to maximize the performance of your radio and your antenna, sometimes propagation gives you a boost when you least expect it. It’s this sense of wireless adventure and wonder that keeps me hooked!

POTA Field Report: A Tale Of Two Parks (And Two Antennas)

Yesterday, I *finally* activated two parks that have been on my list for most of the year: Elk Knob State Game Land (K-6903) and Elk Knob State Park (K-2728).

The game land had never been activated which I found quite puzzling since it seemed to be accessible based on my maps and was only 1.5 miles from (actually adjoining!) a state park which has been activated a number times.

Turns out, there’s a good reason it hadn’t been activated.

Elk Knob State Game Land (K-6903)

Upon entering the game land parcel, you’re greeted by the sign above which states that while the game land is a public resource, it is private land and the owner only allows hunting and trapping on it. First time I’ve ever encountered this.

This meant that I really couldn’t cross the barb wire fence that lined the one lane dirt road to activate the park in the woods (which I would have preferred).

Fortunately, I found one pull-off in the middle of the game land road. It was just wide enough to fit my car so that others on the road could pass me without a problem. It was rather tight, though.

Since I didn’t want to use a tree on the game land to support my antenna, I employed the Chameleon CHA MPAS Lite 17′ vertical.

I pushed the MPAS Lite spike into the ditch of the road and ran the counterpoise along the ditch as well. All was within the road right-of-way, yet within the game land so I felt it a proper compromise respecting the land owner’s wishes while still being able to activate the park.

Gear:

For this activation, I chose the Elecraft KX2 since I had such a limited space in the back of my car to both operate the transceiver and log.

The great thing about the KX2 is it’s such a complete & compact package: it’s a transceiver, with an internal battery pack (that allows 10 watts of power), a built-in ATU, and attachable paddles. Everything easily fits on my clip board which then functions as an operating table.

I started calling CQ POTA and was quickly spotted to the POTA spots page via the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN).

I very quickly logged a number of stations in CW, but did eventually reach one road block when one of the contact posts in my KXPD paddles loosened. I’ve had this happen before. Thankfully, I keep precision screwdrivers in my EDC bag, so could make the fix. Unfortunately, it took me off the air for a good 5-10 minutes and I lost my pile-up.

I eventually changed modes and called CQ a few times on 40 meters phone.

In the end, I only logged 13 contacts. Certainly the smallest number I’ve ever had at an ATNO (All Time New One). I felt I had to cut it short, though, as cars/trucks had to slow down to pass me. Twice I was asked if I needed any help (assuming my car had broken down).

I was very grateful to have the CHA MPAS Lite antenna in my arsenal, though. I have few other antenna options that would have worked so effectively in such a tight space.

The MPAS Lite is also incredibly stealthy. I’m not sure many passersby even noticed it.

On to the next park!

Elk Knob State Park (K-2728)

Where Elk Knob Game Land was an incredibly challenging site, adjoining Elk Knob State Park was the complete opposite. A POTA activator’s dream site.

Gear:

This was my first visit to Elk Knob State Park and I was most impressed. Not only is the park gorgeous and quiet, but the picnic area is expansive, well-spaced, and there are numerous large, old-growth trees. Absolutely perfect for POTA purposes.

The CHA Emcomm III Portable

Since I had the luxury of these tall trees, I decided to employ the CHA Emcomm III Portable which has quickly become my favorite field antenna. When I have the space, I use it because it gives me 160-6 meters and is easily matched by all of my antenna tuners.

Since I had a great picnic table surface to operate, I also used my Icom IC-705 transceiver and Elecraft T1 antenna tuner.

So turns out, I didn’t take a lot of photos of my site because I used my iPhone to make a video of the activation.

On YouTube, I’ve been encouraged by viewers/followers to continue making real-time, real-life videos of some of my park activations. These videos have no edits and are what I would generously call “Ham Radio Slow TV.” 🙂 The idea is the viewer is simply joining me as I set up and operate at a park–as if they were there with me in person. I hope there’s some value in these videos for newcomers to Parks On The Air.

The video ended up capturing the whole activation from start to finish. If you need something to put you to sleep, check it out:

 

Video

All in all, it was a brilliant day and I’m pleased to have finally activated these two POTA sites.

It was a particular treat to discover Elk Knob State Park. I can’t wait to go back there to camp and to hike their trails.

Perhaps this is one of my favorite side benefits of Parks On The Air: it gives me a reason to explore state parks I might have otherwise overlooked. We’re huge supporter of state and national parks, so it’s truly a win-win!

Guest Review: CW Morse Single-Lever Keyer Paddle

On October 10, I took delivery of a CW Morse (https://cwmorse.us/) “Red Single Paddle Morse Code Key With Base” (https://cwmorse.us/product/red-single-paddle-morse-code-key-with-base/) which Tom Witherspoon, K4SWL, had sent me to review for this website. CW Morse had sent Tom several keys to review and Tom, knowing I am a fan of single-lever paddles, sent me the CW Morse single-lever paddle to review.

CW Morse "Red Single Paddle Morse Code Key With Base"

CW Morse "Red Single Paddle Morse Code Key With Base", inside view

I will admit it: I wasn’t expecting much from a 3-D printed CW paddle, but I was very surprised by the quality of the build and the feel of the paddle.

The “Red Single Paddle Morse Code Key With Base” is a nice mix of 3-D printed frame, lever, fingerpiece, and cover with steel ball bearings, metal contacts, steel centering springs, and a heavy steel base. (See photos, above.)

The mailman delivered the paddle on October 10  and I started using it almost immediately as a cootie-key / sideswiper to hunt Parks on the Air (POTA) activations. (A cootie-key or sideswiper is a manual key in which the operator moves a paddle alternately side-to-side to manually create the dots and dashes of Morse Code.) The paddle worked very well as a cootie and I made six POTA QSOs using the paddle on the afternoon of the 10th. Unfortunately, when I tried to use the paddle for my nightly ragchew-QSO with K8RAT, the paddle stopped centering properly and I had to switch to another key to finish the QSO. A day or two later, I studied the CW Morse key and found that I was able to loosen the nut at the lever pivot-point a little bit to reduce drag. After this simple adjustment, the paddle has worked beautifully without further need for adjustment.

The “Red Single Paddle Morse Code Key With Base” features adjustable gaps on both sides of the lever. These gaps are easily adjusted using the supplied Allen wrench or with bare fingers. The spring tension is not adjustable and the paddle’s feel is pretty light.

The steel base, while small, is quite heavy and the four rubber feet provide excellent traction on my radio desk. I have a pretty heavy fist and this paddle is almost heavy enough that I can send with my right hand without holding the paddle with my left hand.

Now, a disclosure: I have been using semi-automatic bugs and fully-manual cootie keys so long now that my keyer fist is absolute rubbish. I did use the paddle to drive an electronic keyer for one ragchew-QSO and the paddle worked very well in that mode and it had a nice feel–any mistakes made in keying were not the fault of the paddle but of my own inability anymore to judge how long to hold the dash-paddle.

I’ve been using this paddle as my go-to cootie-key for over half a month now and as a cootie key the “Red Single Paddle Morse Code Key With Base” excels. The gaps were easily adjustable and the feel of the paddle as a cootie is just fantastic. This key has, at least for the moment, become my favorite hamshack cootie-key.

The “Red Single Paddle Morse Code Key” can be removed from the steel base for field or portable use and I did remove the key from the base to try it in this configuration. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the feel of the paddle in my left hand, primarily because the two mounting rails make the key feel awkward in my hand. CW Morse does offer a dual-lever field paddle (https://cwmorse.us/product/pocket-double-paddle-morse-code-key/) and I think a similar design with a single lever would make an excellent field paddle or cootie key. (Read about Tom Witherspoon’s experience with the dual-lever field paddle here: https://qrper.com/2020/10/pota-field-report-pairing-the-icom-ic-705-with-the-elecraft-t1-and-cw-morse-pocket-paddles/.)

Bottom Line: I have been very pleased with the “Red Single Paddle Morse Code Key With Base” and I can recommend it for any CW operator who needs an inexpensive but well-made single-lever paddle.

Parks On The Air 101: Some real-time, real-life videos of a typical POTA activation using the Icom IC-705

On Monday (October 19, 2020) I received an inquiry from Dale (KI5ARH) only an hour or so before packing up my radio gear to activate Lake Norman State Park (K-2740).

Dale is interested in using his recently acquired Icom IC-705 to get involved with Parks On The Air (POTA) and play radio in the field.

What’s in my field kit

Dale was curious about all of the components of the field kit I use with the IC-705, so I made this video:

Equipment links:

Since I had already set up my phone to record the video above, I decided to make a couple more.

I thought there might be some value in making real-time videos showing what it’s like operating CW and SSB during a POTA activation.  The videos have no edits and haven’t been trimmed.  It’s as if the viewer were there at the activation sitting next to me at the picnic table.

Operating CW with the IC-705

After setting up my station, I first started on the 40M band in CW. I meant to start the camera rolling during tune-up, but forgot to hit record. The video begins after I’d made a few CW contacts, but shows what it’s like changing bands and relying on the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) to pick me up then the POTA website to auto spot me.

Note: to be automatically spotted by the RBN, you must schedule your activation via the POTA website in advance, or have been already spotted by yourself or someone else, so the system will know to look for you.

My video cut off abruptly due to a low battery message. I had to give my iPhone a quick power charge to make the next video.

Operating SSB with the IC-705

After operating CW for a while, I plugged in the hand mic that ships with the IC-705 for a little SSB action. My main goal with this video was to show how I call CQ and use the voice keyer memories in order to manage the field “work flow” process.  I also speak to how important it is to either self-spot or have a friend spot you to the POTA network while operating phone.

I spent so much time setting up and running the camera, I wasn’t actually on the air for very long, but I easily managed to achieve a valid activation and had a lot of fun in the process.

I’m not a pro “YouTuber” as I say in one of my videos. I much prefer blogging my experiences rather than “vlogging,” I suppose.

Still, I think I’ll do a few more “real-time” videos of POTA activations and speak to the various techniques I use to activate parks. Since these videos aren’t edited for time, they may not appeal to the seasoned POTA activator or QRPer–that’s okay, though. My goal is primarily to assist first-time POTA activators.

Have you been activating Parks or Summits lately?  Do you have any advice or suggestions I failed to mention? Or do you have suggestions for future topics? Please comment!

Eric’s DIY Cootie: “Levon”

Many thanks to Eric (WD8RIF) who writes:

Well, if K8RAT is going to tout Hermione, I guess I need to tout Levon.

My cootie/sideswiper was inspired by an article (http://sideswipernet.org/articles/w9ok-modernization.php) by W9LA about how hams in the 1930s might have constructed a cootie/sideswiper using a ceramic DPST knife switch. I didn’t have a ceramic DPST knife switch, but I did have a nice Leviton ceramic DPDT knife switch which I used as the basis for my cootie/sideswiper. Instead of using tape for the fingerpieces as described in the article, I used Fender guitar picks.

This cootie is the key I use most often for home-based operations.

While operating in the field, I usually use an inexpensive and lightweight Whiterook MK-33 single-lever paddle as a cootie key.

Levon is a handsome sideswiper, Eric! Thanks for sharing his story and your photo!

Thanks to both of you, I feel inspired to make my own “cootie” this winter. Perhaps I’ll try to find some historic context/inspiration as well!

Any other homebrew sideswipers, straight keys, or paddles you’d like to share? Please contact me and we’ll feature your creations!

I’ve got a very special one that’ll be featured later this week. Stay tuned!

Mike’s DIY cootie: “Hermione Hackberry”

Many thanks to Mike (K8RAT) who shares a little info about his homebrew sideswiper, “Hermione Hackberry”:

Saw W3AVP’s nifty homebrew sideswiper on QRPer.

This (see photo above) is the one I built a few years ago from a hacksaw blade, cabinet fixtures and a crafter’s block of wood. The felt pad finger pieces allow me send more smoothly than with the bare metal lever.

I also used 4 pads under the base for gripping.

Since I had most of this stuff on hand the cost of the project was less than $4 dollars.

Fantastic, Mike! And I understand Hermione sends like a dream!

Thanks for sharing, Mike! Anyone else care to share a photo of their homebrew key? Please comment or contact me!

Begali is making an Adventure Key stand and mounting bracket for the Icom IC-705

Many thanks to Ray Novak (N9JA) at Icom America who shares photos of the Begali-05 bracket prototype that is being developed for the Icom IC-705 transceiver.

Those who already own a Begali Adventure key will soon be able to mount it on the IC-705 with the Begali-05 bracket.

Ray notes that this is still an early prototype, so the finished product might look quite a bit different.

He also noted, “The plan is for the Begali-05 to be available at Authorized Icom Amateur Dealers.”

I’m a massive fan of Begali keys. Not only do they make some of the best, highest precision keys in the world, but the Begali family are proper ham radio ambassadors. I love supporting them!

Pietro Begali (I2RTF) winner of the 2019 Hamvention Technical Achievement Award.

I’ll attempt to acquire a Belagi-05 bracket and Adventure Key for review with my IC-705. In truth, though, I’m sure it’ll work beautifully. It’ll be a Begali!