Last week, I activated Pisgah Game Land and Pisgah National Forest (K-6937 & K-4510)–things didn’t exactly go according to plan. I still achieved a valid activations–meaning, I logged ten contacts–but I cut my antenna too short.
In short: I cut my wire antenna too short and my KX1 and KX2 ATUs couldn’t find an acceptable impedance match on the 40 meter band. This pretty much forced me to make do with 30 meters and above unless I modified or switched antennas.
The 40 meter band tends to be my most productive band, particularly on days like last Saturday when I’m operating in the latter part of the afternoon.
Maybe it was stubbornness, but I was determined to make a valid activation with that four-feet-too-short antenna.
I first hopped on the air with my Elecraft KX1 (above) and logged a few contacts on 30 meters. I then tried 20 meters, but the band was dead.
Eventually, I pulled the Elecraft KX2 out of the bag with the hope it might actually find a match on 40 meters, but as I said in my previous post, that darn physics stuff got in the way.
That’s okay, though. Although the sun was starting to set and I didn’t want to pack up in the dark, I took my time and eventually logged ten contacts for a valid activation. I actually enjoyed the challenge.
I complain about my wire antenna, but in the end, it made the most of my three watts by snagging stations from New Hampshire, Ontario, Illinois, Arkansas and several states in between.
Against my better judgement, I made a video of this activation. As with all of my videos, they’re real-time, real-life, and have no edits. (They also have no ads.)
A few readers and subscribers had asked me to include the odd video where I actually do a full station set up including the installation of a wire antenna–that’s what you’ll see in this video:
At the end of the day, this was still an incredibly fun activation.
This was the first time I’ve ever completed a valid activation only using the 30 meter band.
Next time, though, you’d better believe I’ll cut my antenna to be the ideal length for 40 meters and above!
If you use a similar antenna with your KX1, KX2, KX3, or other transceiver, I’m curious what lengths you find work best for 40 meters an above. Bonus points for 80 meters. Please comment!
When my buddy Don told me he was selling his Icom IC-703 Plus a few weeks ago, he caught me in a (multi-year long) moment of weakness. I asked his price and followed up with a PayPal transaction without giving it a lot of thought. It was a bit of an impulse purchase, if I’m being completely honest, but he definitely gave me a “friends and family” discount. (FYI: Don is the same enabler that made this purchase happen.)
I’m thinking the IC-703 Plus might be a good first HF rig for my daughter (K4TLI) and, of course, it’ll be fun to take it to the field from time to time.
Of course, the best way to get to know a radio, in my opinion, is to take it to the field. So that’s exactly what I did last week (January 13, 2021).
Blue Ridge Parkway K-3378
Against my better judgement, I decided to make a video of the activation. I mean, what could possibly go wrong operating a radio for the first time in the field? Right–?
I picked out an “easy” park for this activation: the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Although most of the parkway around Asheville, NC, is closed to vehicle traffic, the Folk Art Center is open year round and a very convenient spot for POTA.
I paired the IC-703 Plus with my Chameleon MPAS 2.0 vertical antenna. I was curious how easily the IC-703’s internal ATU could match the MPAS 2.0: turns out, pretty darn well!
I started the activation on 40 meters phone (SSB).
Almost immediately, I logged a few contacts and that quickly built my confidence that even the default voice settings were working well on the IC-703 Plus.
I then moved to 40 meters CW and used the CW memory keyer to call CQ (I pre-programmed this before leaving the QTH that day).
Then I experienced a problem: when someone answered my call, my keyer didn’t work properly. For some reason, it was sending “dit dash” strings from both sides of the paddle. I’m not entirely sure what happened but assume there was either a radio glitch or a small short in my paddle cable. After fiddling with the IC-703 for a bit, I pulled out my Elecraft KX2 and finished the CW portion of my activation. (Always carry a spare radio, I say!)
Actually, I assumed since I was using the IC-703 for the first time, there could be hiccups as I did not do a full rig reset prior to putting it on the air–settings were essentially what they were when Don had the radio.
Here’s one of my real-time, real-life no edit videos of the entire activation, if you’re interested:
Back home, I connected my CW Morse paddles up to the IC-703 and it worked perfectly. Even though I checked the connections in the field, I must assume one of the plugs simply wasn’t fully-inserted. It hasn’t repeated this since.
Despite the CW snafu, I’m very pleased with the IC-703 Plus so far. I like the size for tabletop operating and it’s actually surprisingly lightweight.
If you own or have owned the IC-703, please comment!
I don’t know about you, but part of the fun of playing radio in the field are the inevitable frustrations.
It might not feel like it in the moment, but when I eventually overcome the challenges of a mistake, I feel like I’ve truly accomplished something.
That was my little epiphany this morning: making mistakes has perhaps made me a better radio operator. Less-than-efficient field deployments have honed my skills and had a major influence on the gear I pack.
If you’ve read some of my (rather rambling) field reports in the past, you’ll note that I rarely do field activations with the exact same gear combinations each time. I feel fortunate enough that I can pair different radios with different antennas and different accessories. I get a small thrill out of not knowing exactly how well a combination will work, especially if I’m not activating a rare all-time new park or tough summit for that matter. In cases where getting to the site is a challenge in and of itself, I want to use a trusted combo of gear.
It’s that wee bit of mystery that attracts me to the field.
If I approached POTA more like a contest–where activation and contact numbers were my focus–I would have installed a mobile HF rig in my car a long time ago. I could rack up way more parks and contacts that way. It especially simplifies multi-site activation days since it effectively eliminates the time involved in setting up and later packing up gear. Mobile operating is the most efficient way to hit number goals: drive up to a site, start calling CQ, work your stations, then move on.
K-6937 & K-4510
Yesterday, I did a last minute “two-fer” activation of Pisgah National Forest and Pisgah Game Land. I had not planned to do an activation that day–temps never rose above 29F (-2C) at the QTH day and it also snowed and flurried all day long. Winds were very gusty as well, so it effectively felt much colder on the skin.
I wanted to hike up to the ridge line behind my QTH and do the activation but I knew up there temps would be lower and (worse) winds much stronger. Cold doesn’t really bother me, but strong winds do. This was also the first weekend my ankle felt almost normal after twisting it badly last month. It’s healing and I hope will be in shape for a long hike from my QTH to a six point SOTA summit next weekend with my daughter (K4TLI).
All of those factors combined pointed toward simply staying at home, drinking coffee, and reading a book.
But I really wanted some outdoor time. And I really wanted to make an activation with my Elecraft KX1, so I decided that instead of hiking up in elevation 800 feet, I’d drive down about 900-1,000 feet to a forest trailhead. That would get me on the air in a protected valley with less wind, less snow, possibly warmer temps, and much less hiking which would be easier on my ankle.
The Last-Minute Antenna
When I use the KX1 in the field, I typically pack a very simple antenna: one length of radiator wire and one length of counterpoise wire–connected to a BNC binding post adapter, I let the built-in ATU sort out the match.
When I owned my first KX1, I had a magic length of radiator wire (the length of which I can no longer remember) that seemed to work amazingly well on 40, 30, and 20 meters.
On the way out the door, I decided to cut a new radiator and counterpoise out of scrap wire I use for antenna experiments.
Being a bit stubborn and also in a hurry to beat sunset, I did no Internet research to sort out the ideal lengths for 40 meters. I simply cut a 17′ length for the counterpoise and about 27.5′ for the radiator.
In the Field
After arriving on site, I deployed the antenna and tried finding a match on 40 meters with the KX1’s internal ATU.
I tried a few times hoping maybe the ATU would find something even semi-reasonable in terms of a match, but there simply wasn’t enough radiator to make it work. That was a shame because forty meters would have been the ideal band for yielding quick contacts this time of the afternoon.
I had options, but I wanted to make what I had work.
The activation took time and patience. The 30 meter band was now my best bet and it’s where I logged all ten contacts for a valid activation. I tried 20 meters where I had a 1:1 match, but the band was dead.
At one point, I switched out the KX1 with my KX2 that I also packed. I tried to find a 40 meter match with the superior KX2 ATU, but physics got in the way again. 🙂
40 meters was an option
Let’s be clear here: I could have easily cut 4′ off of the counterpoise and attached it to the radiator and I bet I would have gotten a match on 40M. Since the counterpoise was lying on the ground, its length was less crucial.
I also had a perfectly capable 40/20/10 en-fed antenna in my pack. Switching out the antenna would have only taken four minutes.
I bet I could have easily yielded 20 additional contacts on 40 meters because the band was in great shape. Almost without fail, 40 meters is my most productive band.
Working with limitations
Thing is, I’m starting to understand that I like working with self-imposed limitations.
Perhaps this is why I love QRP and low-power radio so much: I get a little thrill out of doing more with less.
Yesterday, even after I realized it would be a struggle to log my final three contacts on 30 meters, I persisted. One motivation was I’ve never completed a full activation using only 30 meters. With a little patience, I knew I could snag my ten contacts.
The only things making it a challenge were the facts that temps were dropping rapidly, winds were picking up, and the sun was setting. Hazel (the POTA dog) who so eagerly jumped in the car when she saw me put on my hiking boots earlier, was also starting to shiver.
Fortunately, after trying another short stint on 20 meters, I returned to 30 and worked two more stations in quick succession giving me a total of nine contacts.
It started to get darker, so I hunted and found an operator calling CQ on 30 and simply made contact with him. He wasn’t a POTA station, just a general CQ call. He kindly gave me his details for the logs.
I made a video of most of this activation and will upload it when I have a little bandwidth to do so. I’ll embed it in a shorter field report here on QRPer since I’ve described so much already.
Even though it was a challenge making ten contacts to accomplish a valid field activation with my time constraints, I’ll admit that I really enjoyed the challenge.
Next time I head to the field with the KX1, I’ll actually test the antenna prior to leaving the QTH.
In fact, I’m planning to make two radiators: one at an ideal length for 40 meters and above, and another–much longer–for 80 meters and above. Any advice and personal experience from KX1 owners would be much appreciated.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s only now dawned on me how much I enjoy making the most with self-imposed limitations or “trying to make lemonade with lemons.”
Do you feel the same? I’d love to hear your comments.
While I tend to use small, field-portable transceivers on many of my Parks On The Air (POTA) activations, I also love using tabletop transceivers when I have a picnic table available or decide to use my portable table. Tabletop radios often provide more power output when needed and better audio from their built-in speakers.
Although I have an Icom IC-756 Pro transceiver, and an Elecraft KXPA100 amplifier that I can pair with my KX2 and KX3 (or any QRP transceiver for that matter), my favorite tabletop fiel;d radio at present is the Mission RGO One 50 watt transceiver.
In short: it’s a brilliant, simple, tabletop transceiver that’s very happy in the field and a pleasure to operate. My RGO One has the optional built-in antenna tuner (ATU). The rig designer is allowing me to keep this unit on extended loan as I help him evaluate and test updates and upgrades.
While I’ve used the RGO One on numerous POTA activations, I don’t believe I’ve ever made a video of it in use, so I decided to change that last week with another one of my real-time, real-life, unedited (lengthy!) videos of this activation (see video below).
Lake Norman State Park (K-2740)
As I’ve mentioned before, I love activating Lake Norman State Park because it has numerous spots for setting up my gear. While I actually prefer activations that require a bit of hiking, it’s nice from time-to-time to activate a state park that has so many widely-spaced picnic tables under tall trees. That, and my right ankle is still healing after I twisted it in December, so I’m avoiding any proper trail hiking until it is better.
I made this activation of K-2740 on January 4, 2021.
Since I have Internet access at Lake Norman, I can check out the POTA spots page on my phone or tablet and self-spot as well as see spots of other activators.
When I have Internet coverage like this–and I’m not pressed for time–I try to work as many Park-To-Park contacts as I can before I start calling CQ POTA myself.
As I mention in the video, one of my 2021 goals is to obtain a valid activation of each park with only five watts or less. This means that each time I start an activation, at least my first ten stations logged will be with a max of five watts of power. I would actually make the goal for all of my 2021 activations to be 100% QRP, but I evaluate gear regularly and part of that process is to push wattage limits so it’s simply not realistic.
This isn’t actually a crazy goal because a number of my transceivers max out at five watts or less, and I know it won’t be an impediment as I activate parks in CW.
In SSB, though? It makes it a bit more challenging, but certainly not impossible and I’m always up for a challenge!
So I started this activation by trying to work a few Park-To-Park contacts but first cranked the RGO One power down to five watts. Trying to be heard over other hunters in SSB was difficult, but CW was much easier.
After working a few P2P stations, I started calling CQ on the 40 meter band in SSB. I worked about four stations, then switched to CW and worked seven more on 40 meters.
Since I’d snagged my ten contacts for a valid activation, I moved up to 20 meters phone (SSB), cranked up the power to over 40 watts, and started calling CQ POTA and racked up an additional 11 contacts for a total of 26 contacts logged at this activation.
Here’s my QSOmap:
Note that I left the callsign labels off the map this time to make it a little easier to see the geo location of the stations I worked.
Many thanks to QRPer, Curt, who recently left the following comment on a recent post and noted:
I too was a NPOTA activator. My first HF contact ever was on 9/10/2016 and then I threw myself to the wolves so to speak activating my first park on 11/12/2016.
When NPOTA was over I went into withdrawal and I thought POTA was going to fill that void but here in Western PA there’s not much to pick from. We have a lot of parks but none that fall into the park list. One of the local parks I’ve been told not to bother because it’s in the middle of the city and the local police don’t seem to like any activations there for whatever reason.[…]
You’re right, Curt, and I totally understand. Many local, county, and private parks are not included in the Parks On The Air (POTA) program. POTA tends to include parks that are on a state, provincial, or national level. Not always in every country, but it’s the general rule of thumb.
I don’t know the POTA scene in western PA well because I’ve never thoroughly researched it. With that said, I’m willing to bet there are more accessible parks in your neck of the woods than you might realize at first blush.
Historic sites and parks–both state and national ones–tend to have very defined borders with conspicuous entry points. They’re, in many senses, “low-hanging fruit” for POTA because they’re super easy to find and usually have picnic and camping areas.
You simply locate one on the POTA map, tell your smart phone to take you there, arrive, find a picnic table or parking area near trees, setup,…et voilá! You’re on the air and activating. Typically, a very straight-forward process.
I would suggest new POTA operators start with these types of parks to give their field radio kit a good shake-out.
There are so many other POTA entities out there, though, and the POTA map (while an excellent resource) can’t represent them well.
I should add here, that POTA is an international radio activity and I do not know the various types of parks and POTA entities in other countries. There’s a lot of variability.
Here in the States, aside from parks and historic sites, we have other POTA entities like:
Wildlife Management Areas & Refuges
These types of public lands can be vast with many possible parking areas and entry points. Some have multiple, disconnected tracts of land and the POTA map only typically represents them as one clickable geo point because it would be incredibly difficult to represent them otherwise.
It requires the POTA activator to do a little planning and research.
Here in North Carolina, we have a lot of state game lands and they’re some of my favorite spots to activate.
Some game lands may only be a couple hundred acres large, others may encompass hundreds of thousands of acres.
Case in Point: Nantahala Game Land is only one entity on the POTA map, but it is located in no less than six western North Carolina counties–dominating the majority of them, in fact.
If you have lived the majority of your life where you are now, you’ll likely recognize some of the names associated with the park entities in this list.
Regardless, comb through this long list carefully. Do an internet search on the park names and you’ll quickly discover roughly where the land is located
2. Make a spreadsheet of potential parks
On this sheet make column headers for at least:
The park name
The POTA designator for that park (K-6937, for example)
The travel time to the park
The geo coordinates of potential activation spots
I also added
How “rare” the park might be (how many times it’s been activated)
How easy access to the park might be
If it could potentially be a two-fer (meaning two POTA entities overlapping)
3.) Find an activation site with Google Maps satellite view
Now that you’re developing an activation plan (via your spreadsheet), and you’ve located all of the nearby parks, game lands, wildlife management areas, trails, refuges, etc. it’s time to research each entity and find activation sites.
Most states (and provinces, counties, regions) have sites that will help you find access points to public lands. Each state is different–some (like North Carolina) have amazing online resources, others may not.
If you can’t get the details you need online, don’t hesitate to call those public departments in charge of the lands and ask them about access points. They’re experts on the subject and often your taxes pay their salary. 🙂
To find game land activation sites in North Carolina, I first go to the WRC Map and click on a site. The WRC site will offer up maps and even indicate obvious parking and camping locations.
I then find public roads in/around the game lands and do a Google Map search (you can pick your favorite mapping tool).
I compare the WRC map with the Google map (side by side) and search for parking spots using a satellite view.
Here’s how to find the satellite view on Google Maps using a sample POTA site:
Find the park area based on public roads, then click on satellite view:
Now you’ll be able to see a bird’s eye view of the land:
When you zoom in, you often can identify a nice parking spot:
That’s how I do it.
Important note: of course, it’s incredibly important that you compare public land boundaries with your activation site and make sure you will, indeed, be on that POTA entity when you activate. While there are no POTA police–nor will there ever be–I personally want to be 100% sure I’m activating entirely within the boundaries of my chosen park. Google Maps can’t be trusted to indicate unit boundaries–one needs to compare the state or federal maps of the unit to be sure.
Next, I take those geo coordinates (map links) and embed them in my POTA spreadsheet.
Later on, when I decide to activate that park, all of my research is done! I simply grab my gear and go.
If you’re like me, you may be surprised how many potential activation sites there are in your region when you take a closer look at public land boundaries and access points.
I found at least five POTA sites within a 90 minute drive of my home that were ATNOs (All-Time New Ones) that no one had activated.
How do you research parks–?
I probably should not call this a “Pro Tip” because I’m not a professional!
There are many different ways you can find great POTA sites within your region. Please feel free to share your POTA procedure with us in the comments!
This was one of the first times I’d checked my numbers in weeks. At the end of the day, I’m not a competitive guy, and perhaps one of the reasons I like POTA is it’s more an activity, less a contest.
National Parks On The Air (NPOTA) in 2016 was not a contest either, per the ARRL, but it felt more like one since it was a one year event. I definitely caught the NPOTA bug that year and mostly within the space of 5 months activated over 90 parks. It helped that my girls’ school bordered a national park.
Don’t get me wrong, NPOTA was AMAZING fun, but I had some serious withdrawal by the end of the event and even felt a touch of burn-out.
Turns out, so many NPOTA participants had withdrawal, that they formed POTA and even turned it into a non-profit organization.
POTA is a multi-year activity and is also international unlike NPOTA.
I do believe POTA has injected some much-needed life into amateur radio and has given operators a reason to take their radios to the field.
Back to the numbers
With all of that said, I was eager to see what my numbers looked like for 2020, so I checked out my entry on the leaderboard:
Here’s a breakdown of my activation numbers:
37 Unique Parks
1721 total contacts:
I found these numbers very interesting.
First of all, had I worked one more CW station, I would have made 1,000 contacts! Still: I like the ring of 999.
Thing is, I have come to appreciate how effective CW is when operating at QRP levels. Also, it’s much easier to find a clear spot on the dial to call CQ in CW–SSB, some weekends, it can be a real challenge
In addition, as long as I schedule my activation in advance, the POTA spots page will auto-spot me by pulling my details from the reverse beacon network (RBN). This is HUGE for me since a good 60% of the parks I activate have no mobile internet connectivity.
SSB, however, has much greater numbers in terms of operators. I’d be willing to bet there are seven SSB-only operators to every one operator who uses CW.
Phone activators sometimes amass DXpedition-like pile-ups. It’s pretty amazing.
No doubt, if you want to really pump up your POTA numbers, the best plan is to use both phone and CW.
I’m a very casual POTA hunter, still the numbers were less modest than I had assumed:
281 Unique Parks
337 Total Contacts
As with 2020, I won’t pay a lot of attention to my numbers. I do have a few goals, though:
Achieve all of my activations with five watts or less
Get my daughter K4TLI in on the POTA action (she’s close to taking her General test)
Make at least one data mode activation
Go to at least 20 new parks
Continue to have fun!
To be clear about my five watt challenge: I will use more than 5 watts in the field (indeed, I did yesterday). I often test transceivers and antennas during POTA activations, so need to push the power settings from time to time.
My goal is to work my first 10 contacts (thus achieving the required amount for a valid activation) of each activation with 5 watts or less.
How about you?
If you’re a POTA activator or hunter, have you looked at your numbers recently? What are your goals for 2020? If you’re new to POTA, do you plan to join in on the fun this year? If so, what equipment do you plan to use?
Typically, there’s a trade off with field antennas:
High-performance antennastend to take more time to install. Some of my highest performance antennas are dipoles, doublets, delta loops, and end fed wire antennas. All of them require support from a tree if I want maximum height off the ground. Some (like the dipole) require multiple supports. While I actually enjoy installing wire antennas in trees, it typically takes me at least 10 minutes to install a wire antenna if it only needs one support and one counterpoise.
Compromised or low-profile antennas may lack performance and efficiency, but are often much quicker and easier to deploy.
In my opinion, field operators should keep both types of antennas in their arsenal because sometimes the site itself will dictate which antenna they use. I’ve activated many sites where wire antennas simply aren’t an option.
That was not the case last Tuesday, however.
Tuttle Educational State Forest (K-4861)
On Tuesday, December 29, 2020, I stopped by Tuttle Educational State Forest (K-4861)–one of my favorite local state parks–for a quick, impromptu activation.
I had no less than four antennas in my car that day and Tuttle is the type of site where I can install pretty much anything: they’ve a spacious picnic area with large tables, tall trees, and parking is close by. Tuttle is the perfect place to deploy not only a large wire antenna, but a large radio if you wish since you don’t have to lug it far from the car.
But en route to Tuttle I decided to take a completely different approach. One of the four antennas I had in the car that day was the Elecraft AX1 antenna.
Without a doubt, the AX1 is the most portable antenna I own. It’s so compact, I can carry it in my pocket if I wish.
When I first purchased the AX1, I was very skeptical and assumed it would only work when “the stars aligned”–days with better-than-average propagation and lots of POTA hunters/chasers looking for me.
The first time I used the AX1 in the field, it impressed me (understatement alert).
In all of my AX1 activations, however, I had only operated on the 40 meter band where the antenna’s footprint looked more like a NVIS antenna than a vertical. Meaning, most of my contacts were in neighboring states like Tennessee, South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia (typically, those states are in my 40 meter skip zone).
The reason I hadn’t tried 20 or 17 meters with the AX1 is because I would start an activation on the 40 meter band and accumulate enough contacts to achieve a valid activation. Since I’m often pressed for time, I simply didn’t bother configuring the antenna for the higher bands.
Time for that to change!
The question I wanted answered at Tuttle: could the AX1 antenna work “DX” stations? By DX, I mean POTA DX, so distant states and provinces primarily–not necessarily other countries.
I paired the Elecraft KX3 with the AX1 at Tuttle. This was the first time I’d ever tried this particular transceiver/antenna combo.
After setting up, I started on the 20 meter band and called CQ for a few minutes.
The first two stations I worked were in Texas (KF9RX and K5RX).
The third station (W6LEN) was in California.
Honestly, it was/is hard for me to fathom how in the world 10 watts into a tabletop telescoping whip antenna could work a station exactly 2,083 miles (3,352 km)–and three time zones away–from my picnic table. I’m sure W6LEN has a great antenna on the other end, but I bet he would be surprised to learn that my 10 watt signal was being radiated by such a wee antenna.
I then worked stations in Florida (K2WO), Minnesota (N0UR), and New Hampshire (W2NR) and decided to move to 17 meters.
On 17 meters I worked W2NR in New Hampshire once again.
I should note here that each time you work a station on a different band or with a different mode, it counts as a separate contact in POTA. In other words, my contacts with W2NR on 20 meters and 17 meters counts as two logged contacts toward my overall QSO count. I’m very appreciative of hunters who go out of their way to work me on different bands and modes: those extra contacts help me achieve a valid activation in short order.
I then moved to 40 meters and worked stations from Tennessee, West Virginia, Ohio, and Michigan.
Here’s a video of the entire activation. It’s a long video as it starts at set-up and continues until my last contact. There are no edits in this video–it’s a real-time, real-life deal and contains all of my bloopers:
Note that in the video I had the KX3’s volume maxed out so that it could be picked up by my iPhone microphone. The KX3’s wee internal speaker was vibrating the chassis ever so slightly. On the 40 meter band, it resonated enough that it moved the encoder slightly. Next time, I’ll plan to bring a portable external speaker (if you have any suggestions of good ones, let me know).
I should also add that I’m very pleased with my new Bioenno 3aH LiFePo 12V battery. You can see it in the photo above–it’s slim, lightweight, and very compact.
I purchased it during Bioenno’s Black Friday sale. I was a little concerned it might not have enough capacity to carry me through multiple activations–my other LiFePo batteries re 4.5 and 15 aH–but that does not seem to be the case at all! Not only did it provide nearly an hour of intense use on this activation, but it also powered three activations the previous day–all four activations on one charge! Brilliant!
As I mentioned in a previous post, this was one of those activations that reminded me of the magic of low-power radio. It was incredibly fun!
For all of those phone/SSB operators out there, I will eventually see how successful I can be doing a phone-only activation with the AX1 antenna. I’ll plan to make a video of it as well. I’ll need to plan this for a day when I have more time to spend on the air and at a site where I know I’ll have internet access to spot myself to the POTA network. SSB isn’t quite as effective as CW when operating with a setup this modest. Still–it can be done! It just requires a little more patience. Please let me know if this sort of thing would interest you.
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!
Back in the days of the National Parks On The Air (NPOTA) program in 2016, I made it a habit of doing multiple park activations in a morning, afternoon, or evening. I’ve done less of this in Parks On The Air (POTA) this year only because my time is more limited. Still, I love doing multiples because it gives me an opportunity to set up, play radio, achieve a valid activation, pack up, move on and repeat. Makes me feel like the only member of a pit stop crew. I love it!
Some call this RaDAR (Rapid Deployment Amateur Radio).
Monday (December 21, 2020) I had a block of time in the early afternoon to fit in up to two activations, en route to the QTH if all went well. While it wasn’t three, four, or five activations in an afternoon, I knew it would be a challenge to fit both in my tight schedule. If an activation took much longer than 30-40 minutes, I wouldn’t be able to complete both.
Since my goal was a quick activation, I reached for the Chameleon MPAS Lite vertical antenna which is so easy to deploy. I paired it with the Icom IC-705 and new mAT-705Plus ATU.
My first stop was Johns River Game Land. During hunting season, I spend less time in game lands because parking areas are full and even though I wear a blaze orange vest, I’d rather not be shot if I venture into the forest to set up. 🙂
Johns River has a very accessible large parking area off of a highway near Morganton, NC and I’ve never seen more than two vehicles there at a time.
I arrived on site just before noon on Monday and set up at the edge of the parking area. Unfortunately, this parking area is less than bucolic. Those who use this game land access point leave trash everywhere. You can tell groups gather with pickup trucks, make fire pits, drink beer, break bottles and throw their trash in the woods. Being a firm believer in Leave No Trace, this really, really gripes me.
I found a spot with the least amount of trash and set up in the gravel portion of the parking area so I didn’t drive over sharp objects or step on broken glass.
This is where the Chameleon MPAS Lite came in handy: I plunged its spike in the ground, unrolled the counterpoise, extended the antenna, and I was on the air in perhaps three minutes. No need to walk into the weeds and trees to hang an antenna.
I made a real-time, no-edit video of the entire activation with my iPhone. Since the iPhone was in use, I didn’t take a single photo at Johns River. That’s okay, though, because–as I mentioned–there wasn’t a lot there in terms of scenery. 🙂
All in all, I worked 11 stations in short order. The video above approaches 30 minutes, but much of that time is dialog before the activation started. Toward the end, I also have the Mat-Tuner mAT-705Plus tune from 160-6 meters with the CHA MPAS Lite. If you’d like to skip directly to that bit, here’s the link.
I quickly packed my gear and set my sites on the next activation.
Lake James State Park (K-2739)
I arrived at Lake James State Park around 19:00 UTC and was on the air ten minutes later with the same equipment I used at Johns River.
I love Lake James because there are so many picnic sites and all have tall trees (for wire antennas) and gorgeous views. It doesn’t get any better for a POTA activator. Also, it’s a very short walk to the picnic spots. Since I recently sprained my ankle and can’t hike at present, this is a major plus. Like Johns River, I also have mobile internet access at Lake James which was a huge plus since the POTA spotting page wasn’t pulling spots from the Reverse Beacon Network like it normally does.
The Chameleon MPAS Lite 17′ vertical (above) served me well once again.
I worked 11 stations in short order.
Even though a vertical antenna isn’t optimal in the foothills of western North Carolina (due to poor ground conductivity), it had no problem sending my 10 watts across the US into California and up to Alaska. I still get a major thrill out of MPW (mileage per watt) like this!
I also made a short video at Lake James where I primarily talk about the trade off between convenience and performance with regards to field antennas. I also work a few stations on 30 meters:
Here’s a QSOMap of all of my contact from both Johns River and Lake James on Monday December 21, 2020:
Today is Christmas Eve and I’ve no plans to do an activation (torrential rain, if I’m being honest, is dissuading me).
Instead, I’ll spend quality time with my family here at home. Same for Christmas Day. This evening, we’ll watch some our favorite Christmas shows/episodes: The Good Life (a.k.a. Good Neighbors), The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and of course a Charlie Brown Christmas to cap off the evening.
I know 2020 has put a damper on gatherings with family and friends–our family has certainly felt it this year. With that said, I think the amazing thing about ham radio is the community we build over the air–it’s certainly been an important community for me, this year especially.
Thank you, radio family!
Here’s wishing you, your family, and your friends the very best of the season!
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!