If you’re going to Hamvention, I hope to meet you there. When I’m not floating around, I’ll be hanging out at the Ham Radio Workbench/Halibut Electronics table: 3011.
I’m super excited about attending, but I’ve so much to prepare in advance. Every day between now and then is planned out to the max with family activities and projects.
That, and being an introvert (this might surprise some of you), I have to mentally prepare myself for hanging out with 30+ thousand other human beings. I’ll need ten days for that alone. If I appear tired at Hamvention or FDIM, you’ll know why! Ha ha!
Postcard Field Report
I’ve got a load of videos in the pipeline and to keep from falling behind publishing them, you’re going to see more of my slightly shorter “Postcard Field Reports” for the next couple of weeks during my travels.
These postcard reports contain all of the core information, just less wordy. (In theory!)
Tuttle Educational State Forest (K-4861)
On Wednesday, April 5, 2023, I had a bit of time in the early afternoon to do a POTA activation. Tuttle Educational State Forest was low-hanging fruit as my errands that day took me within a stone’s throw of the park.
I arrived a bit before noon and took some time to record a Hike and Talk video (which will be published in the next couple of weeks).
You’ve no doubt heard me brag about the Emtech ZM-2 ATU in previous field reports. I think it’s an accessory every field operator should have.
The ZM-2 is a very capable manual transmatch/ATU and is also one of the more affordable tuners on the market. It’s available as both a kit and a fully-assembled unit. Both well under $100.
I do believe the “manual” part of the ZM-2 scares off some and it really shouldn’t. We are used to simply pressing a button these days and allowing our automatic ATUs to do all of the matching work for us.
Manual ATUs do require some amount of skill, but truth is, the learning curve is very modest and intuitive.
Manual ATUs require no power source in order to operate–you adjust the L and C values by hand–thus there’s never a worry about the ATU’s battery being depleted. They also are easy to manipulate outside the ham bands because they require no RF in order to read the SWR–you simply make adjustments to the L and C until you hear the noise peak. This is why many shortwave broadcast listeners love the ZM-2 so much. It’ll match most any antenna you hook up to it!
I also argue that everyone should have a portable ATU even if you operate resonant antennas. Think of an ATU as a First Aid Kit for your antenna: if the deployment is less than ideal, or if you damage it in the field, an ATU can help you find an impedance match your radio can live with. ATUs have saved several of my activations.
Mountain Topper MTR-4B V2
I’ve also mentioned that I’ve had an MTR-4B on loan from a very kind and generous reader for most of the year. He was in no particular hurry for me to send it back to him, but I wrote him in early November and said, “I’m doing one more activation with this little rig, then I’m shipping it to its rightful owner!”
He had a request, and it was a good one:
I think it would be a good little twist to the usual YouTube if you paired a random wire with the ZM-2 and the MTR-4B…showing how to tune the ZM-2 with a Mountain Topper…
I really liked this idea, so I made plans to to hit the Blue Ridge Parkway nearby and give it a go.
The first time I tried this in the field, I paired the MTR-4B with one of my Sony amplified speakers because the MTR-4B 1.) has no internal speaker and 2.) has no volume control. During the video, however, I realized that there simply wasn’t enough audio amplification so that the viewer would be able to hear a noise peak as I manually tuned the ATU. I decided to scratch that video and just do the activation on my own. I really wanted to show how the tuning process worked in the video.
It was so great to spend an extended weekend camping, hiking, and hopping on the air with other SOTA activators.
I especially enjoyed getting to know Joshua (KO4AWH)–the fellow behind Tufteln products— over that weekend. He needed a campsite and since my buddy Monty had to pull out of the trip due family activities, I was happy to share the tent site with him. It actually worked out quite well since we could then pair up and car pool to our SOTA and POTA activations.
What follows is a field report for two SOTA activations Joshua and I did back-to-back on Friday, October 14, 2022.
The trail head for both of these summits was only a few miles from our campsite at Lake Winfield Scott.
Note that I used the same gear during both SOTA activations all packed in my Spec-Ops Brand SOTA backpack.
Black Mountain and Big Cedar essentially share the same trailhead at the Woody Gap Recreational Area parking lot on Highway 60.
We were on site early enough to grab a parking space. Keep in mind that it was Friday during leaf season, so there were quite a few hikers on the trails that day! In fact, by midday, the parking lot was overflowing with cars.
Almost by flip of coin, we decided to hit Big Cedar Mountain first. Turns out, Joshua had actually hiked to this summit in the past and even met a SOTA activator en route (and I believe this might have been his inspiration to try Summits On The Air!).
As I’ve mentioned in the past, I feel pretty lucky to live in an area that is flush with POTA sites. It’s not that we have numerous individual parks, but the parks we do have encompass massive portions of the area.
One park, in particular, that literally runs around and through Asheville, NC, is the Blue Ridge Parkway. When I’m in town and have a few free minutes, it’s quite easy to hit the BRP; it’s never far away. I can set up along the parkway pretty much anywhere, or go to the Visitor’s Center or Folk Art Center if I want to operate from a picnic table. In addition, the Mountains To Sea Trail runs along large portions of the parkway, so it’s very easy to hit it as well.
On Wednesday, September 28, 2022, I took my daughters to a class and had the better part of an hour to play radio. The BRP’s Folk Art Center was only a 10 minute drive from their class, so I made a beeline for the site as soon as I dropped them off.
I had the amazing Penntek TR-45L packed in my car, and decided to pair it with my Tufteln End-Fed Random Wire antenna.
After returning from Canada this summer, I had a number of projects on the table including three radios to evaluate and a number of DIY projects on our investment house. The home projects took priority, so for the month of August, I did very little in terms of POTA activating.
In September, there was one radio in particular I was very eager to take to the field (besides the Penntek TR-45L). That was my Elecraft KX1, “Ruby.”
Before leaving for Canada, Ruby went into surgery once again under the care of my good friend “Dr.” Vlado (N3CZ).
I couldn’t figure out why she kept dropping power output to nil after being on the air for 20-25 minutes. I knew Vlado would sort out the issue.
Vlado discovered the source was a cold solder joint that was failing when the radio would become warm from operating. He fixed this and checked a number of other spots on the board.
He then tested the KX1 on a dummy load for and hour and she performed flawlessly after the surgery.
He fixed Ruby in early June and then we went to Canada for two months. I never put Ruby on the air in Canada.
After our return to the States, I was eager to take Ruby out to the field again and that’s exactly what I did on Sunday, September 11, 2022.
Lake James State Park (K-2739)
Lake James State Park–along with South Mountains State Park–are the easiest parks for me to hit during my nearly weekly travels on Interstate 40. I feel so fortunate that both are superb POTA sites with loads of spots to operate.
I arrived in the late afternoon and to my surprise there was hardly anyone at the park (I think it was a little too close to evening mealtime for families).
I set up my station at a table close to the parking area just to keep things simple. I was looking forward to enjoying at least 30 minutes on the air and seeing just how well Ruby might hold up.
I decided to use the Tufteln End-Fed Random Wire antenna knowing it would be a quick to deploy and frequency agile.
I tried to use the KX1 ATU to tune the random wire, but I wasn’t pleased with the SWR. Frankly, it was doable (1.9:1 on 20 meters), but I wanted something much closer to 1:1 since I was already only pushing 2.5-3 watts output.
Keep in mind, the KX1’s internal ATU is not in the same league as the ones in the Elecraft KX2, KX3, or T1–the KX1 ATU has a much smaller matching range.
Also, I suspect Ruby’s ATU wasn’t built for optimal performance by the original builder. I do plan to re-work her ATU as best I can at some point in the future.
I pulled out the Elecraft T1, put the KX1 ATU in bypass mode, and hooked it up to the antenna. The T1 had no problem at all finding 1:1 matches across 40, 30, and 20 meters, of course.
We started off our trip in Ottawa where we spent four days.
Only moments after arriving at our hotel that first day, Vince (VE6LK) made time in his schedule to administer my Canadian Basic exam remotely. That evening–despite being a bit bleary eyed after a fairly long day of driving–I passed my Basic with Honours. (I’m still chuffed about that!)
By the next morning, I already had the callsign I requested: VY2SW. My mailing address in Canada is in Prince Edward Island hence the VY2 call. Since essentially every new call in Canada is a vanity call, I chose the suffix SW to reflect my US call. PEI is one of the few provinces where as a Basic license holder you can request a 2×2 call.
My first activation in Canada was at Hog’s Back Conservation Reserve. I had the good fortune of meeting up with Andrew, one of my subscribers, at the park. It was great getting to know him–what a nice fellow–and to start off a series of activations in Canada on the right foot.
After leaving Ottawa, we made our way to Saint-Ferréol-les-Neiges, Québec where we’d reserved a condo/townhome for 6 weeks. That served as our home base as we traveled around Québec City, Saguenay, the Charlevoix region, and the North Shore of the St-Lawrence.
I noted in many field reports how surprised I was to discover that a number of popular parks were still ATNOs (All-Time New Ones) in the POTA network. Then again, POTA hasn’t been in Canada as long as other similar programs like WWFF and SOTA.
Many of the POTA activations I made in Canada were in urban parks–especially the ones in/around Québec City. These activations took me outside of my comfort zone; I’m used to activating state and national parks back home that are expansive and largely in rural areas.
At some point during my Canada travels this summer, I realized I had been using the Elecraft KX2 quite heavily. If you’ve been following my recent field reports, you’ve no doubt seen a lot of the KX2.
This was never intentional–it’s just how it played out.
Why the KX2 in heavy rotation?
For starters, I only brought two general coverage radios with me to Canada: the KX2 and the Discovery TX-500. I also tucked away my KX1 and MTR-3B (hidden under the floor of my boot/trunk space), but band conditions were so incredibly poor most days, I liked the option of a QRP “full gallon” (ie. 5 watts+) for activations. The KX2 and TX-500 can push up to 10 watts when needed.
The KX2 tends to be the radio I reach for when I don’t know what to expect at a park. Most parks I activated in Québec were firsts for me so I liked having my most versatile radio option on hand.
Since the KX2 has a built-in ATU, battery pack, and even an internal mic; it’s so self-contained, I pretty much take it everywhere.
The KX2 is also one of the most compact radios I own–so compact, in fact, it fits on a small folding knee board my friend Carolanne (N0RNM) made (see in photo above and read more about the design in her guest post). With this kneeboard, I’ve no need of a table: just strap the board to my leg, add radio & log book, and I’m good to go!
Whereas I feel like the KX2 is a Swiss Army Knife of a radio, the TX-500 feels more like a tactical radio–ready for any changing weather environment. The TX-500 is water resistant, weather/dust sealed, and insanely rugged. It’s also the most efficient general coverage QRP radio I own, needing only 100-110 mA in receive.
The TX-500 is super portable and I tend to reach for it when weather conditions are uncertain. In a way, I often don’t think about it when there’s good weather. Odd, but true!
It’s a wee bit too wide for my current knee board, but (hint) if you own a TX-500, hang tight. There may be a knee board in your future.
All that said, the big reason I didn’t take the TX-500 to the field a lot is because it served as my “home base” transceiver at our rental condo in Québec. I had it set up for hunting POTA and SOTA activators and making casual contacts. The TX-500 sat on a table next to the deck at the condo and was hooked up to the CHA MPAS Lite most of the time; the KX2 stayed packed away for POTA/SOTA.
TX-500 field time!
On July 18, 2022, I grabbed the TX-500 from the table and packed it in my field radio backpack.
My wife and daughters were up for a trip to Québec City, so I picked out a park in the Sainte-Foy part of town.
There are many POTA parks in Sainte-Foy (indeed, I already activated four of them) but the one that immediately came to mind was one of the few I’d explored previously in Québec: Base de plein air Sainte-Foy.
This spring, as we planned our two months of travel in Québec, Canada, I jotted down one location in particular that I wanted to visit: Baie-Comeau.
Baie-Comeau is located about 420 km (260 miles) northeast of Québec City on the north shore of the mighty St-Lawerence river. It’s a small city with a population of around 21,000 and is pretty darn isolated. For many travelers, Baie-Comeau is the last major stop before a long, lonely road journey north to Labrador City or further northeast along the St-Lawrence.
I’ve always wanted to visit Baie-Comeau and my wife and daughters were game to make a proper trip out of it!
While in Québec, we plotted the details of our trip to coincide with a good weather opening.
We packed our gear, left the home base near St-Anne-de-Beaupré on July 13, 2022, and drove up the St-Lawrence, crossing the Saguenay River by ferry, and on up to Baie-Comeau with a few stops along the way.
It’s a beautiful drive.
We reserved lodging at the Hôtel Le Manoir Baie-Comeau (an excellent hotel, if you ever find yourself overnight in Baie-Comeau). We’re frugal travelers, so this was a bit of a splurge, but the stay coincided with our 20th wedding anniversary, so why not?
I was very happy to see that the Manicouagan Uapishka Biosphere Reserve was on a hill only a short drive from the hotel. It was approaching dinner hour, so I didn’t want to fit in a late afternoon activation with the family; we had other plans that evening. My wife suggested instead that we check out the park and walk the trails before dinner which would allow me a bit of time to scope out an activation site.
Manicouagan Uapishka Biosphere Reserve (VE-0054)
We discovered that Google Maps doesn’t have the trailhead marked very well. It led us to a neighborhood street a short walk from the park. I remembered reading a note from a local (online) mentioning there was ample parking at “the church” so we drove to a beautiful church nearby and immediately spotted the trailhead. If you ever find yourself in Baie-Comeau, here are the coordinates for the trailhead.
Turns out, the church is no longer a church, but has has been converted into the headquarters for the park which is a part of the Jardins des glaciers.
There are some brilliant views of the St-Lawrence from the parking lot.
We quite easily found the trailhead of the sentier which led into the biosphere reserve. I used my GPS to confirm when we were well within the boundaries.
We enjoyed a scenic hike that evening.
As I mention in my activation video, this is one of the amazing things about doing POTA during travels: you discover so many incredible parks that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. My family truly appreciates this particular aspect of POTA. It opens the opportunity to find spots only locals might otherwise know about.
After our hike that evening, I had a pretty good idea where I could set up in the morning. We made our way back to the hotel and enjoyed dinner and a movie.
So that my activation time wouldn’t interfere with family plans that day, I scheduled an early morning activation for July 14.
Some activations are more challenging than others.
I think we had all hoped on our climb into Cycle 25 that we’d get some brilliant propagation, stable conditions, and the opportunity to use less power and yield more DX. Who doesn’t want that?
But we get what we get from our local star and the theme this year is that it is indeed showing some positive indicators, but at the same time–this summer, especially–it’s spitting stuff toward our pale blue dot that makes a mess of the ionosphere.
Lately, each time I head out the door to activate a park, I never know what to expect. It’s part of the fun. Will band conditions be in the dumps, or will the ionosphere provide the perfect platform for my QRP signals–?
On Thursday July 7, 2022 it was the former rather than the latter.
My fourth park was Boisé des Compagnons-de-Cartier which essentially adjoined the previous park I activated. As I mentioned in the previous field report, I could have simply walked through the trail system to this park from my previous site, but I needed to find a different parking spot for my car, so I simply drove to a large lot next to the secondary school I spotted on Google Maps.
Turns out even though that lot was nearly empty, it was a paid parking, so I reserved a parking spot for one hour.
Boisé des Compagnons-de-Cartier (VE-0958)
When I first parked, I wasn’t entirely sure where the park entrance was until I spotted a bench and park sign at the far corner of the lot.
This park, much like the previous one, seemed to be an urban park with trails for walking and running.
I walked the main path into the park and looked for a park bench like I found at the park entrance (above). I thought it might be nice to set up along the path and do a park bench activation much like I did at another urban park in Québec City.
I walked for a decent distance and couldn’t see a bench in sight. The path was fairly busy with walkers and runners, so I was very pleased when I found a side trail cutting through the middle of the park.
I could tell that this path–while very well-worn and obvious–was not one maintained by the park admin. It looked more like a simple foot trail that local children have probably used in the past (I spotted a little wooden fort/lean-to in the woods.)
Keep in mind that this was my fourth park activation of the day and by this time, I was running behind–no surprise there. After the activation, I had two errands to run in QC before heading back to our condo and enjoying dinner and a movie with the family.