Last Tuesday (April 27, 2020), I grabbed my radio gear and my boots then headed to the Blue Ridge Parkway for a quick morning activation.
There were three factors motivating me: 1.) the weather was amazing 2.) I had three free hours in my schedule and 3.) I was eager to pair the LDG Z-100 ATU with the Icom IC-705 for the first time.
Hazel–my canine companion–was as eager to hit the field as I was.
When she heard me grab my boots, she met me at the door with tail wagging.
I did plan to hit the Blue Ridge Parkway, but had not decided on an actual site. The lowest hanging fruit (easiest sites to reach from the QTH) are the Folk Arts Center and the Blue Ridge Parkway Headquarters. I wanted more altitude, though, so we drove to the Craggy Gardens Picnic Area.
This is a favorite spot for our family, but this time of year can be quite busy–especially around noon. I hoped that I could beat the crowds by arriving early. We pulled into the parking lot around 9:00 AM and were one of the only cars there (score!).
Blue Ridge Parkway (K-3378 NC)
Hazel and I found a concrete picnic table overlooking the parking area and I quickly deployed the CHA Emcomm III Portable over a short tree with my arborist throw line. (Have I mentioned before how AMAZING an arborist throw line is? Why yes, I have!)
I made a video of the entire activation including pairing the Z-100 Plus ATU with the IC-705 via the supplied command cable. In true K4SWL style, I didn’t read the Z-100 Plus owner’s manual or connect the Z-100 Plus to the IC-705 prior to recording.
Frankly, I forgot to read the manual I wanted to show what it was like pairing the Z-100 Plus and IC-705 for the first time without having even referenced the manual. Fortunately, it couldn’t have been an easier process: connect the command cable, and go into the ATU function menu to activate the tuner.
I started my activation on 80 meters and–although the band was dead quiet–I worked K8RAT, WD8RIF, K4JAZ and ND1J in about six minutes.
Next, I moved up to 40 meters where I worked nine more stations in about thirteen minutes.
Finally, I moved to the 30 meter band where I worked two more stations in about five minutes.
One first for this activation was working K8RAT in north central Ohio on all three bands! His signal was incredibly weak on 30 meters, but I recognized his sideswiper “fist” or operating style.
At the end of the activation, I tested the Z-100 Plus by having it match the Emcomm III Portable random wire all the way up the band to 6 meters. It did a fine job.
No surprise here as the Z-100 Plus is a well-loved ATU that’s been on the market for quite some time already. At $150 it’s a proper bargain of an ATU. Unlike the mAT-705 Plus which only pairs with the IC-705, the Z-100 Plus is RF-sensing and can pair with any transceiver on the market.
Here’s a video of the entire activation including pairing the Z-100 Plus with the IC-705 for the first time:
Here’s a QSO map of the entire activation:
This was a very enjoyable activation at one of my favorite Blue Ridge Parkway picnic areas. It was especially pleasant to have the place all to ourselves–a true rarity! I think Hazel was a bit bummed that our local red squirrels (we call them “Boomers”) weren’t out in full force. They’re proper “Squirrel TV” for her since she must be on a leash on the parkway and can’t chase them as she does at home.
If you’re ever travelling the Blue Ridge Parkway, this is a great area. As I mention in the video, the Craggy Gardens Picnic Area also borders a vast tract of land–accessible by a forest service road on the site’s driveway–where the Pisgah National Forest and Pisgah Game Land overlap for a POTA two-fer (here’s a previous report including this two-fer).
Craggy Dome–a SOTA summit–is also very close by. In addition, Mount Mitchell State Park is only 20-25 north on the parkway and offers up both a POTA site and SOTA summit. So many possibilities on this part of the BRP! One could easily activate four parks and two summits in the space of a few hours.
On my way back to the QTH, April 21, 2021, I popped by Tuttle Educational State Forest for what I hoped would be a relatively quick activation.
The previous day I performed a SOTA activation of The Pinnacle and was still feeling the high from that brilliant solar flare propagation experience. Although I knew the solar flare effects were long gone over 24 hours later, I wanted to take in a quick hike and play a little radio: Tuttle was the perfect place for both.
Plus, Tuttle Educational State Forest is such a peaceful quiet place (that is, when no one is burning up rounds at the nearby shooting range). The park is never crowded and it has wide open spaces for playing radio.
My plan was to do a quick activation, then hit their longest trail loop through the forest.
In the spirit of full transparency, LDG sent this unit to me at no cost when they became a sponsor of the SWLing Post and QRPer.com recently (you may have noticed their ads in the right sidebar). While I was really curious how well the Z-100 Plus pairs with the Icom IC-705–using the supplied command cable–I didn’t have a (charged) IC-705 with me. Instead, I pulled out the trusty Yaesu FT-817ND and hit the air!
The Z-100 Plus is RF-sensing, so a command cable is never needed and the ATU will pair with any transceiver.
To use the Z-100 Plus with the FT-817ND, I only needed to hit the Tune button on the front of the ATU then send a string of dits or dashes for it to initiate a match search.
It was no surprise that the Z-100 Plus easily found matches with the Emcomm III Portable.
I started calling CQ on 80 meters and quickly worked my buddy WD8RIF in Ohio.
After a few minutes, I moved up to the 40 meter band where I worked four stations in about four minutes, then the band was quiet for a few minutes.
I then moved up to the 30 meter band and worked four more stations in about seven minutes then silence again.
At this point, I only needed one more contact to validate my POTA activation to have ten stations logged, so I moved up to the 20 meter band and in about four minutes worked two more.
If I didn’t have a limited amount of time and a strong desire to fit in a hike that afternoon, I might have called CQ a while longer on 20 meters and possibly even 17 meters, but I called QRT after a total of 36 minutes on the air.
Herein lies the advantage of having a portable ATU: it gives you frequency agility. On days when propagation is rough, and contact roll in slowly, a good ATU will allow you to find matches on multiple bands so your transceiver will be happy pushing RF through a non-resonant antenna length. I love resonant antennas, but it’s hard to beat the flexibility an ATU gives you.
[My next video, by the way, will feature the Z-100 Plus connected to the IC-705. ]
Here’s how my contacts looked that day on a QSOmap:
I was so busy making the activation video, I didn’t think about taking photos of my rig.
During the hike, however, I did snap these two:
It’s fun returning to the same parks and seeing how the flora changes with the seasons. There’s always something new to see.
I think the next time I activate Tuttle, it might be from the trail–I located a couple of spots that would be ideal for a park bench activation! That might make it feel a bit more like a SOTA activation (although, there are no summits in this forest).
Thanks again for reading through this activation report. Please comment with any questions or feedback. Very curious what LDG Z-100 Plus owners think of this ATU.
Last week, I had a hankering to visit a site I hadn’t activated in a few months: South Mountains Game Land.
This game land is pretty vast and has a number of entry points, almost all of which are very accessible. When I re-visit a site multiple times, I like to try different entrances when I can because it gives me a chance to check out a site better and, frankly, even enjoy a little light off-roading.
I found a western road leading deep into South Mountains from the Wildlife Resource Commission map and decided to explore it and do a quick activation.
South Mountains Game Land (K-6952)
I avoid activating Game Lands on days when I suspect there will be a lot of hunting. Tuesday afternoon was *not* ideal for hunters. Besides being the middle of a work day, it was cold and very gusty.
As I drove about 4 miles into the site, I didn’t see a single car or truck parked in any of the parking areas. I could tell I had the place to myself.
A Few Precautions
It goes without saying that if you’re doing a POTA or SOTA activation in a rural/remote area that has no mobile phone coverage (quite common at the ones I activate), you really need to take a few precautions.
First of all, let someone else know where you’ll be and how long you plan to be there. I always let a couple radio friends know where I’ll be so if I don’t show up on the air or they don’t hear from me, they could contact authorities to look for me.
Secondly, always take a proper first aid kit. If you get hurt, you need a way to apply first aid until you can get help.
Take a handheld radio with local repeater frequencies pre-loaded. Even though I might not have cell phone coverage, I can almost always hit at least one repeater.
Of course, carry a little food and water with you and make sure your vehicle has fuel as well.
Always wear a high-visibility vest, jacket, and/or cap. Many game lands require these. Besides, would you rather perform and activation or get shot? I don’t like getting shot. I also don’t like the idea of being bear food, so at least pack a little bear mace if you’re in bear country.
When I’m activating a game land I don’t hike deep into the woods. In fact, I try to stay on or very close to a parking area. Even though POTA is becoming a very popular radio activity, I can promise that you’ll likely be the first POTA activator most hunters will see. It’s a good idea to be near areas of activity like a parking spot or road where they’re much less likely to be hunting.
Finally, as I mentioned before, I personally do not activate game lands on busy hunting days.
Of course, check the weather forecast in advance.
On The Air
I found a great spot to set up my station near a ridge line deep in the game lands.
Normally, I’d set up right next to my car, but Tuesday the winds were very gusty so I found a semi-protected area maybe 10 yards off the road. I located a spot with the least amount of overhanging branches (always check for widowmakers and dead trees!).
It only took me five minutes to deploy the Chameleon Emcomm III Portable random wire antenna with my arborist throw line.
Random wire antennas require tuners, so I employed the Mat-Tuner mAT-705 Plus.
This site has no mobile phone coverage, so I had no easy way to spot myself to the POTA spots page had I decided to do a little phone/SSB operating. I decided to stick with CW as the POTA spots page will auto-spot me using my information from the Reverse Beacon Network (as long as that system is working).
It’s so rare that I do activations around noon or early in the afternoon, so I decided to start on 20 meters just to see if I could snag a European station.
I felt pretty chuffed to quickly snag the Azores (CU3BL) and a few west coast stations with my 5 watts and a wire. QRP rocks!
I then moved to 40 meters where I worked a number of stations in succession and topped off the activation with one 30 meter contact.
Here’s a QSOmap of this activation:
Not bad for about 40 minutes on the air.
I also made one of my real-time, real-life videos of the activation. Note that my camera died on me perhaps five minutes before I completed the activation, so it will end abruptly. Sorry about that!
My ankle is healing nicely so I’m feeling more comfortable with the idea of hiking again. I’m plotting a SOTA activation with my daughter in the coming weeks.
Yesterday, I started the day hoping I might fit in one afternoon activation at a local park. In the morning, however, my schedule opened up and I found I actually had a window of about six hours to play radio!
Instead of hitting a local park, I considered driving to parks I’d been planning to activate for months.
I may have mentioned before that, earlier this year, I created a spreadsheet where I listed of all of the parks I planned to activate in 2020.
Each park entry had the park name, POTA designator, priority (high/medium/low), difficulty level for access, and a link to the geo coordinates of where I could park and possibly hike to the site. I spent hours putting that list together as finding park access–especially for game lands–isn’t always easy.
Yesterday morning, I looked at that sheet and decided to knock two, or possibly three off the list.
I had already plotted the park run, driving to Perkins State Game Land (K-6935) near Mocksville, then to the NC Transportation Museum State Historic Site (K-6847) in Spencer, and finally Second Creek Game Land (K-6950) in Mt Ulla.
The circuit required about three hours of driving. Here’s the map: When I plan an activation run, I factor in the travel time, add ten minutes extra if it’s my first time at the site (assuming I’ll need to find a spot to operate) and then assume at least one hour to deploy my gear, work at least ten stations, and pack up.
Using this formula, I’d need to allow three hours for driving, plus an additional three hours of operating time, plus a few minutes to sort out an operating spot at Perkins Game Land. That would total six hours and some change.
Knowing things don’t always go to plan, I decided I’d quickly omit the NC Transportation museum if I was running behind after the Perkins activation. In fact, I felt like the NC Transportation Museum might be out of reach, so I didn’t even schedule the activation on the POTA site.
Perkins State Game Land (K-6935)
I arrived at K-6935 a little before noon (EST).
Since this is the week after Christmas, I had a hunch game lands could be quite busy with folks trying out their new hunting gear and I was correct. I passed by the first small parking area and it was packed with vehicles, so I drove on to the second parking area I identified via Google Maps satellite view.
The second parking area was also busy, but was larger. There was just enough room for my car to park between two trucks.
I donned my blaze orange vest–a necessity at any game land–and walked outside to asses the site. In short? It was a tough one. There were no easy trees to use for antenna support and I simply didn’t have the space. I knew folks would walk through the area where I set up my antenna so a wire antenna would have acted a lot like a spider’s web.
I pulled out my trust Chameleon MPAS Lite vertical antenna and deployed it next to the car. I rolled out the counterpoise into the woods paralleling a footpath so no one would trip on it.
Since I had no room to set up outside, I operated from the backseat of my car–it was actually very comfortable.
I pulled out the Elecraft KX3 and hooked it directly to the MPAS Lite–it easily tuned the antenna on both 40 meters, where I started, then later 20 meters.
I very quickly logged 13 stations on 40 and 20 meters.
While on the air, a number of other hunters discovered the parking area was nearly full–some turned around and left. I decided to cut the activation with 13 logged and skipped doing any SSB work. I accomplished what I set out to do here, was short on time, and I wasn’t actually using the game land for its intended purpose. Better to give others the parking space!
I quickly packed up and started the 30 minute drive to my next site.
NC Transportation Museum State Historic Site (K-6847)
I knew what to expect at the NC Transportation Museum because I’ve visited the museum in the past and, earlier this year, scoped out a spot to activate the park in their overflow parking area.
The museum is closed on Mondays. In general, I avoid activating parks and sites that are closed. I never want to give anyone at the park a bad impression of POTA activators.
In this case, however, the overflow parking area is wide open even when the park is closed and there was no one at the site. I felt very comfortable setting up the CHA MPAS Lite which is a pretty stealthy antenna. Indeed, as I was setting up, I’m guessing it was a museum employee that passed by in their car and waved–no doubt, POTA activators are a familiar site!
I set up my portable table behind the car under the hatchback so I took up the least amount of space.
I used the table primarily so I could shoot one of my real-time, real-life videos of a park activation. Readers have been asking for more of these and I’m happy to make them if they’re helpful to even one new ham.
In the end, I logged 13 stations and didn’t try to work more because I was still on track to activate one more park. I didn’t feel bad about only working 13 stations, because this site has been activated many times in the past–in other words, it wasn’t exactly rare.
Again, since I planned to make a video of the activation, I set up my portable table.
I decided en route to the site, that I’d use the Chameleon MPAS 2.0 vertical at Second Creek. Although I’ve used the more compact Chameleon MPAS Lite at a number of parks–including the two previous parks–I had a great spot to deploy the taller MPAS 2.0.
As with the MPAS Lite, deployment was very quick. the MPAS 2.0 vertical is made up of folding pole sections–much like tent poles. As with all Chameleon gear I’ve ever used, the quality is military grade. Full stop.
I started calling CQ on the 20 meter band in CW this time. Within a minute or so I logged my first contact, followed by five more.
I then moved to the 40 meter band and logged twelve more stations in twelve minutes.
I decided to then give SSB a go as well and logged two more stations for a total of twenty stations logged.
I would like to have stayed longer at Second Creek and even used the MPAS 2.0 on 80 meters, but frankly I was pushing my time limit to the edge.
All in all, it was a brilliant three park run!
These days, it’s difficult to pack more than three parks in my available time–in fact, I think this was the first three park run I’d done in months. During National Parks On The Air (NPOTA) in 2016, I’d been known to pack four or five parks in a day–it was so much fun.
Here’s my QSOmap for the day (click to enlarge):
Getting outside on such a beautiful day, driving through some picturesque rural parts of my home state, and playing radio? Yeah, that’s always going to be a formula for some amazing fun!
Monday afternoon (December 14, 2020), after completing a long to-do list of errands, I found myself with a chunk of free time in the late afternoon. Of course, I like to fill free time with radio time, so I packed the car and headed to one of my favorite spots: Lake Norman State Park (K-2740).
I love Lake Norman because it’s only a 35 minute drive from my parents’ house (where I was that Monday) and it’s nearly ideal for POTA because they’ve a number of picnic tables widely spaced, and lots of tall trees–a perfect spot for wire antennas. It’s also a quiet location and has good “POTA Mojo”–meaning, I’ve never had difficulty racking up contacts there.
I was the only person at the picnic area of Lake Norman that afternoon. No surprise as it was after 3:00 PM local and temps were on a fast downward trend after a front moved through earlier in the day.
I used my arborist throw line and deployed the Emcomm III Portable antenna with ease.
On the Air
I hopped on the air around 21:30 UTC and started calling CQ POTA. The Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) spotted me and the POTA website auto-spotted me under a minute. Within ten minutes, I logged 8 contacts on 40M.
I then moved to 20 meters and worked an additional 5 contacts within 15 minutes.
Since I had worked a total of 13 stations, I had three more than needed for a valid POTA activation.
Since I was using the amazing Emcomm III Portable random wire antenna, I decided to move to 160M just to see if anyone work work me on the “top band.”
To be clear, 160 is one of the least active bands in POTA for obvious reasons: few ops care to deploy an antenna that can tune up on 160M, and few POTA hunters have an antenna at home to work the Top Band. Although it’s not as efficient as a resonant 160M antenna, the Elecraft T1 and mAT-705 easily tune it and get a great match.
I called CQ for a few minutes on 1810 kHz in CW and N4EX replied. Woo hoo! My first 160M POTA contact as an activator.
I then moved up to the phone QRP calling frequency of 1910 kHz and called CQ for about 10 minutes. No dice. Since I spotted myself, about two stations attempted to make contact, but unfortunately, my five watts just couldn’t be heard.
I checked the time at this point and it was 22:30 UTC. The sun was setting over Lake Norman, so I started packing up.
It was then received a text from my buddy Mike (K8RAT). The message read, “80M?”
I thought it might be fun to work Mike on 80M, so I re-connected the antenna and tuned up on 3538 kHz.
I think I called CQ once, and Mike replied with a strong signal. We had a nice exchange and when we sent our 73s, I heard a few stations calling me. Of course…the RBN picked up my CQ for Mike and the POTA site spotted me.
To be clear: it’s next to impossible for me to cut an activation short when I have hunters actively calling me, so I started replying.
Turns out, 80 meters was on fire. In 15 minutes, I logged 17 more stations–from Florida to Ontario–with 5 watts.
Next thing I know, it’s dark. Like, pitch dark…
Side note: someday, remind me to write a post about how one of my earliest National Parks On The Air (NPOTA) activations carried on until it was pitch dark outside and how that one activation forever changed how I pack my gear. In short: if you’re in the field and you aren’t intimately familiar with your gear and how its packed–even if you have a headlamp–there’s a good likelihood you’ll leave something behind.
It then hit me that Lake Norman State Park closes at sunset in the winter. Doh!
Friendly park rangers
I finished my last exchange (with W3KC) and sent QRT despite a few others still calling me.
As I quickly powered down the IC-705, I noticed a truck pass by slowly on the road behind me. He drove to the end of the road then turned around and stopped behind me. I knew it was a park ranger doing final rounds.
He walked down to my table with flashlight in hand and I greeted him with an apology as I quickly packed up my gear. He was incredibly kind and encouraged me to take my time. He also saved me a trip to the car to grab my headlamp by illuminating the area with his Maglite flashlight/torch.
The park ranger asked a number of questions about ham radio, POTA, and the equipment I was using as I packed up. He told me he’s always found it fascinating and had met other radio amateurs at the park doing activations. I gave him my contact info and I hope he considers checking out the world of radio.
Because I’m meticulous about how I pack (again, lessons learned from the past) I had no issues in low light and left nothing behind.
I drove out of the park at exactly 6:00PM which is the park’s closing time. I was happy, at least, that I hadn’t delayed their closing!
All-in-all, it was a very fun activation–so much fun, I lost track of time. I logged 30 stations all over North America on four bands with 5 watts.
Have you ever found yourself operating and packing up in the dark? Any stories to share or advice? Please comment!
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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.
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!
I feel pretty lucky that my QTH borders tens of thousands of acres of protected lands: a watershed, Pisgah National Forest, and Pisgah Game Land WRC. Our family enjoys hiking, so we often venture into the forest around our house and explore the ridge lines, peaks, and views.
This year, while exploring all of the public lands available to activate in the Parks On The Air (POTA) program, I realized there were no less than two sites within a 30-35 minute hike of my home! Quite literally, in my back yard.
In fact, there’s a large area where two POTA entities overlap–Pisgah National Forest and Pisgah Game Land–giving me the opportunity to activate both sites simultaneously as a “two-fer.”
If it’s so close, you may wonder why I haven’t activated it yet–? Well, by the time I realized the park boundary overlap was within hiking distance of the house, we were well into spring, thus the forest was lush with vegetation and the hike to the site requires proper trail-blazing with an elevation change of 600′ (183M). It’s a much easier hike in fall and winter when you can actually see where you’re going through the trees.
Still: Saturday morning, the weather was so perfect for hiking I floated the idea by my teenage daughter, Geneva: “I’ve got a hankering to hike up the mountain today and do a POTA activation.” She replied, “I’ll need to pack my daypack and take the HT.” She was eager to see if she could communicate back to the house simplex with her mom and sis with her new FT-60R handheld.
My wife gave me her blessing, so I packed my trusty Red Oxx C-Ruck with my Elecraft KX2 kit, CHA Emcomm III Portable antenna, water, snacks, logbook and tablet, and used the ruck top flap to secure my three leg folding stool.
Pisgah Game Land WRC (K-6937) & Pisgah National Forest (K-4510)
We arrived at a suitable site about 40 minutes after leaving the QTH. My Garmin GPS and topo maps confirmed we were well within park boundaries. I found a rock outcropping and set up my station.
Even though the area was pretty dense with trees, Rhododendrons, and Mountain Laurel, I had no difficulty deploying the Emcomm III Portable antenna using my throw line.
The Elecraft KX2 had no trouble at all matching the Emcomm III on all bands.
Even though Geneva was busy communicating with her sister (back at “Mission Control” via simplex) on the FT-60R, she actively logged all of my contact on the Surface Go tablet using N3FJP’s excellent contact log.
I quickly logged eleven contacts on 80 and 40 meters and my daughter suggested we cut the activation a bit short to take in more hiking.
We both wanted to follow a trail we found and see if it lead to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
I packed up the station and hit the trail!
It turned out to be a good 45 minute trek along a ridge line increasing our elevation about 1,000′ (305M) ASL compared with home. The trail to the BRP was what I would call a moderately difficult trail (much easier than trail-blazing up the mountain!).
In the end, we found the Blue Ridge Parkway and the trail head to ascend Lane Pinnacle which is an excellent SOTA site. We decided to save Lane for another day this fall/winter with a very early departure from home.
Neva also discovered she could easily chat with her sister back at the QTH via 2 meter simplex at the parkway. This means I can definitely chat with the family back home when I eventually make that Lane Pinnacle SOTA activation.
The hike back to the POTA site was mostly downhill so only took about 40 minutes. I then veered off the path to trail-blaze our way back to the house. I did get a little off course which added about 25 minutes (!!) to our descent and requiring us to mitigate the steepest part of the ridge. Next time, I’ll pay more attention to my GPS map (although, in the winter, it’ll be much easier).
Still, it was a very enjoyable hike and certainly one of the more challenging I’ve been on in ages mainly due to the steep part at the end.
All-in-all: I discovered that there are no less than three POTA sites and one SOTA site within hiking distance of the QTH. The best part, by far, was the father/daughter time. Geneva is always up for an adventure (including currently studying for her General class license!).
It seems like lately I’ve had to work hard to log 10-15 contacts during my Parks On The Air (POTA) activations. Propagation has been so flaky, I use every trick in the book to snag at least my ten contacts for a valid activation: change antenna configuration, run up to 40-50 watts output, employ both CW and SSB, have friends spot me on the network, and try every band possible (typically from 80-17).
Note that the majority of my activations are proper QRP and rarely do I spend longer than 60 to 90 minutes actually on the air. Indeed, many of my activations are only 60 minutes long including set-up and take-down. That may seem short to most POTA folks, but that’s what works in my schedule and family life: quick hits. It’s one of the reasons I’m not more active in Summits On The Air (SOTA)–I need more time for those sites as they’re not as accessible as our numerous POTA entities.
Still, our local star has been misbehaving, and I had not planned to do an activation on Sunday (September 28) because I saw the propagation forecast and it was rather discouraging (A index 26, SW 505, Bz -2).
From home that morning, I chased a few parks but found it challenging to hear most of them. QSB was incredibly deep–strong stations gone in an instant.
Still, my wife suggested we take a picnic to one of our favorite local spots and how could I possibly visit a park without activating it? Right–?
Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace (K-6856)
What we, as a family, love about this site is the large covered picnic area and historic log cabins. Also, the site receives very few visitors on Sundays when the main museum is closed.
Each time we visit the Vance site, we bring my MSR liquid fuel stove and make lunch/dinner.
I set up the stove, got lunch started and my wife took over food prep.
Knowing propagation was unstable, I opted for more than QRP power this time–at least, at first–so I chose the Mission RGO One transceiver (capable of 55 W output) and CHA Emcomm III Portable antenna for this activation.
I deployed the Emcomm III in a sloping configuration with the end of the 73′ radiator high in a nearby (dead) tree and the counterpoise on the ground. I also suspended the winder/balun from the corner of one of the shelter’s rafter’s with paracord.
Since it’s difficult to see a wire antenna in photos, I’ve labeled the components in the following image (click to enlarge):
I didn’t know if this configuration would prove useful, but I knew it would be better than attempting this activation with my Wolf River Coils TIA vertical antenna.
I hopped on the air starting on 80M CW (at the request of my buddy WD8RIF), worked him and three stations in rapid succession. After a few minutes of silence, I moved up to the 40 meter band and worked 16 stations. I then moved to 30 meters and worked 11 stations.
I was working more stations than I would have ever guessed beforehand.
Since I only had about 10 minutes to spare after working 30 meters, I decided to plug in the microphone and work some park-to-park contacts. While I always intend to hunt for other parks while I’m in the field, more times than not, I don’t have the luxury of an Internet connection to check the POTA spots page like I did at Vance on Sunday.
I must say, I really love the CW Morse double paddles. They’re fully (and easily) adjustable, the action is responsive and smooth, and with the base, they’re incredibly stable on a hard surface. I highly recommend them.
At a setting like we had at Vance, I love the heavy base plate, but if I planned to hike into a site, I believe I’d remove the base to save on weight.
Perhaps there was a brief window of stability between solar events and I was able to take advantage of that while I was on the air? I’m not sure.
I never expected to log 37 contacts in the space of a little over an hour (with some of that time being off the air to help with picnic prep). Not on that Sunday when the solar numbers were in the dumps.
I’d like to believe it was a combination of things:
A large wire field antenna with decent gain and the ability to work multiple bands
40 watts of power (at first, I backed down to QRP on 30 meters)
Using CW for 34 of the 37 contacts
Perhaps unintentionally good timing
All I know is, I had a blast! It’s hard to beat a combination of good radio, good food, good scenery, and good weather!
I suppose this was also a lesson in simply hitting the field and ignoring the propagation.
Or as Rear Admiral David G. Farragut once famously said, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”
Weather in North Carolina has been absolutely stunning over the past week, with the exception of two days where the remnants of Hurricane Sally dumped torrential rain. Two cold fronts provided us with gorgeous clear skies and dry conditions before and after Sally’s visit.
Of course, what better way to enjoy the outdoors than taking my radios to the field?
Last Wednesday, after several hours of knocking out home projects, my wife and I decided to enjoy the fall-like weather and get lost in Pisgah National Forest. My daughters were also keen for a little outdoor adventure, waterfalls, and hiking.
And our canine family member, Hazel? Always up for an outing!
Of course, my wife was throwing me a bone as she knew I was chomping at the bit to try the new-to-me Chameleon Emcomm IIIantenna.
Up to this point, I’d never used a Chameleon antenna in the field.
Chameleon Antenna kindly sent me both the CHA Emcomm III and CHA P-Loop a couple weeks ago for an honest field evaluation (and disclaimer: at no cost to me).
And being honest? The overall length of the Emcomm III wire antenna was intimidating. I’m used to field-ready wire antennas that are perhaps 30-41 feet in total length. The Emcomm III has a 73 foot long radiator and 25′ counterpoise! Holy smokes!
In my head, I imagined the only places I’d be able to use the Emcomm III would be in an open park with large, widely-spaces trees.
Turns out, I was wrong.
Two things make deploying the Emcomm III a breeze–even in the middle of a forest:
1.) An arborist throw line: this piece of kithas revolutionized my field antenna deployments. Not only does it give me the ability to suspend antennas much higher than I could before, but also to raise/lower antennas with ease compared with fishing line.
2.) The Emcomm III also has a floating dielectric ring on the radiator wire that allows you to create a suspension point. In fact, there are a number of ways you can deploy the Emcomm III which, I see now, makes it such a popular antenna among POTA operators.
To the field!
The first activation was actually a “two-fer”–meaning, two geographically-overlapping POTA park entities.
Wednesday, September 16: Pisgah National Forest (K-4510) & Pisgah Game Lands WRC (K-6937)
Propagation conditions on Wednesday were so crappy I found myself breaking with QRP to run 40 watts with the Mission RGO One into the Emcomm III. (The Emcomm III can actually handle up to 50 watts CW, 100 watts SSB.)
I first deployed the Emcomm III by pulling the radiator over a tree branch about 50′ high with the balun and winder near the ground. I then unrolled the counterpoise stretched out on the ground.
After only snagging about eight contacts in 50 minutes (a very meager amount for the typical park activation), I decided to re-configure the Emcomm III Portable so that it would act more like a NVIS antenna and perhaps grab a few regional hunters on 80 meters. There was no way I was leaving the forest without my 10 contacts to validate the activation!
I reeled in the radiator and re-attached my throw line to the floating loop and reconfigured the antenna to roughly match this “V” shape with a lower (roughly 25 ft) apex point:
I used the RGO One’s internal ATU to match the 80 meter band 1:1.
I started calling CQ on 80 meters CW and, evidently, the POTA site auto-spotted me via the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) because within a minute, I found myself at the other side of a mini pile-up! I very rapidly worked 8 stations–most of them were in nearby Tennessee. These were callsigns I was not used to logging because typically they’d be under my skip zone–a little too local.
It was nice to get solid copy on 80 meters without the deep QSB on 40, 30 and 20 meters.
The thing that struck me about the Emcomm III at this first activation was how easy it was to reconfigure in the field despite the lengthy radiator. The wire is Copper Clad KEVLAR PTFE (Telflon-coated) and doesn’t easily tangle. It slides so easily through the trees–there’s no coil or bulky bits to get caught in the limbs.
When packing up, it wraps around its built-in winder very easily. Kudos to the designer.
Saturday, September 19: Pisgah National Forest (K-4510) & Pisgah Game Lands WRC (K-6937)
Last Saturday, I wanted to try the CHA Emcomm III in a different region of Pisgah National Forest and see how well it might pair with my Elecraft KX2.
We found an ideal spot to set up: a forest service road that had obviously been closed the entire season.
I deployed the Emcomm III Portable in the same “V” configuration as I did during the first activation, but this time raising the apex of the “V” up to 45 feet.
It’s important to note here that being a random wire antenna, the Emcomm III relies an an ATU to get good matches on each band. The Mission RGO One’s internal ATU did a brilliant job finding matches and, turns out, my KX2 did as well.
In fact, before I started calling CQ, I moved across the bands to see if I could get good matches with the KX2 ATU. From 80-20 meters, I think the highest SWR I had was 1.3:1. (The KX series ATU is truly a benchmark in my book!)
That day, even though the weather was gorgeous, propagation was terrible. I read a few reports from experienced POTA and SOTA folks who couldn’t snag the needed 10 contacts for a valid activation earlier that day. There were contests and QSO parties on the bands so lots of signals–but more than once on the phone portion of the 40 meter band, I could hear two stations calling CQ on the same frequency and trying to work the same stations totally unaware of each other. Not a good day to play radio in the field and was starting to wonder if I could even snag my needed ten contacts.
Turns out, I had nothing to fear.
Since I could, quite literally, pick any band the KX2 could transmit on, I was able to float across the HF spectrum, call CQ, and the RBN would make sure I was spotted properly to the POTA network.
I pretty effortlessly snagged my ten, and then a number to boot.
When I seek a spot to set up in a national forest, I often look for forest service roads with locked gates. When I set up on an unused road, it typically means I’ll have a high branch to hang the antenna and also a little space to deploy it without touching other trees. Our spot on Saturday was ideal.
Again, hanging and deploying the Emcomm III was effortless. I did bring about 12 feet of paracord with me this time allowing me to tie off the end of the radiator if I chose the “V” shape.
Monday, September 21: Mitchell River Game Land (K-6926) & Stone Mountain State Park (K-2754)
Monday was another stunning weather day.
I decided I wanted to finally make a pilgrimage to an ATNO (All Time New One) POTA site I’d been eyeing for a few months: Mitchell River Game Land.
Because propagation was fickle and this site was a good 3 hour round trip from where I was staying with family, I planned to use the Mission RGO One and run 40-50 watts or so.
However, when I got to the site, I realized I’d left the RGO One’s power cable at home. Fortunately, I still had my Elecraft KX2, so 10 watts would have to do.
I found a large parking pull-off area surrounded by trees. There was a ton of room to deploy the Emcomm III.
I decided to extend the radiator in a sloping configuration and elevate the 25 foot counterpoise.
The configuration was Identical to the one above , but the balun/center winder and counterpoise were suspended about 4 feet off the ground.
I fired up the KX2 and started calling CQ on 80 meters. The RBN picked me up and the POTA site auto spotted me. In a couple of minutes, I snagged my first three stations, then I heard no other calls, so moved up to 40 meters where I worked a big pile-up of stations. It felt like a mini-DXpedition at times. I loved it!
I even hopped on the phone portion of the 40 meter band and worked a few stations, getting respectable signal reports despite unstable propagation.
This activation went so well and the weather was so ideal, I decided to fit in another park that was only a 30 minute drive and was new to me: Stone Mountain State Park.
The thirty minute drive was relaxing and reminded me how much I enjoy this portion of the NC foothills leading up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and escarpment.
By the time I reached the park it was 1:30 pm on a Monday and I essentially had the place to myself (even though in my head I was preparing for crowds).
I had my pick of picnic spots so I found the one with the highest branches. One shot with the arborist throw line and I snagged a branch that must have been 45-50 feet high.
I first deployed the Emcomm III by simply running the radiator over a tree branch and laying the counterpoise on the ground–much like I did in the first Emcomm III activation and deployment.
I started calling CQ and worked about 4 stations, then nothing. The bands simply died on me!
After 30 minutes, I reconfigured the Emcomm III into a similar “V” shape I used at Pisgah National Forest with the apex at about 40 ft and the center winder and counterpoise elevated about 3 feet.
After some persistence, I finished off my ten contacts and then packed up–I spent about 70 minutes on the air and needed to grab lunch!
I honestly believe I would have found this activation even more challenging if I didn’t have an antenna that could snag stations on the 80 meter band since it was in the best shape that afternoon.
Again, I was very impressed with how easy it was to reconfigure the Emcomm III.
Tuesday, September 22: Tuttle Educational State Forest (K-2754)
After staying two nights with my parents in the Piedmont of North Carolina, I made my way back home to the mountains Tuesday afternoon. Again, the weather lured me back out to make just one more activation! (Let’s face it: the weather is a bit of an excuse).
One of my favorite parks that’s only a 20 minute detour off my path is Tuttle Educational Forest. It’s never busy there and they have a large picnic area with ideal trees for hanging antennas.
After searching through my main field pack (a Red Oxx C-Ruck), I found a spare power cord that would work with the Mission RGO One transceiver.
I didn’t have a microphone, though. That’s okay: it would be a CW-only activation.
Although I had the park to myself, I didn’t want to take up a large portion of the picnic area by deploying the Emcomm III in a sloping configuration similar to my activation at Mitchell River. I decided, instead, to be space efficient and use the “V” configuration once again with the apex at about 35 feet and the counterpoise on the ground. By doing this, the antenna footprint could almost fit within my picnic table area (although my counterpoise did snake into the woods).
I can’t remember how long I was on the air, but I do remember it was a breeze logging contacts that afternoon. Very enjoyable. I do love the Mission RGO One–the receiver is amazingly quiet, sensitive, selective, and signals simply pop out of the ether. It also sports silky-smooth QSK. Again, although I’m 90-95% a QRPer, it’s nice to push the juice a bit when propagation isn’t kind. The RGO One will push 55 watts.
The Mission RGO One ATU also snags excellent SWR matches across the band with the Emcomm III.
Emcomm III initial impressions
This past week, I gained some serious respect for the Emcomm III.
What impresses me most is its versatility and robust quality.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a magic antenna or anything. It’s essentially a random wire antenna.
What makes it such a fabulous field antenna, though, is its configurability. That and its uncompromised military-grade construction.
I shouldn’t have been so concerned about the radiator length as it’s actually pretty easy to accommodate and helps make this an efficient antenna on the low bands. (Look for me activating parks on 160 meters this winter!)
I believe I can deploy the Emcomm III anytime I have a half-decent tree nearby. I believe I could also use my 31′ Jackite fiberglass pole to extend one end or even the middle of the antenna if I wanted to go NVIS, but I would have to be careful to accommodate strain relief since the Emcomm III Portable is made of heavier materials than my EFT Trail-friendly antenna, for example.
I’m not sure I’d ever reach for the Emcomm III for a SOTA activation when I’d need to take a close look at weight and size. But for POTA? It’s brilliant. And, of course, for emergency communications (as the model name implies). The Emcomm III would also be an excellent addition to a radio club’s antenna arsenal.
The Emcomm III, like all Chameleon products, is designed and made in the USA. Since they use military-grade components, you pay a premium. The Emcomm III is one of their least expensive products at $139 US. Is it worth the price? Absolutely. In fact, I’m thinking about buying a second one to keep in my camper.