Category Archives: Radio

NPOTA and WWFF

The ARRL National Parks On The Air (NPOTA) event concluded on December 31, 2016. During this year-long event to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS), Amateur Radio operators set up their stations in NPS units to make contacts with other stations at home.

1494 hams participated as “activators” by setting up stations in the parks, and almost 17,000 participated by making contacts with them. A total of just over 1.1 million individual two-way contacts resulted. I closed out the year with a total of 59 activations, putting me in 64th place nationwide. I made contact with 329 different parks, giving me a ranking of 386th place out of those 17,000.

The March 2017 issue of QST contains an excellent article summarizing the year’s activity, and it is available for free PDF download at the ARRL website.

Even though NPOTA has now ended, there was a great deal of interest in continuing it in some fashion.  The activity isn’t as frenzied, but many hams are continuing to get out to the parks and do activations as part of World Wide Flora and Fauna in Amateur Radio (WWFF).  WWFF is a very similar concept to NPOTA, but as the name implies, it is worldwide.

The program got its start in about 2008 in Russia by the Russian Robinson Club, and has been very popular in Australia and Europe.  During my activations, there were a number of familiar European stations who kept working me, undoubtedly as part of the WWFF program.  With the tie-in to NPOTA, the North American chapter of WWFF has achieved similar popularity.

While NPOTA focused on National Parks and other NPS properties, WWFF includes many other parks, including most state parks in the United States. I haven’t been on the air yet from the parks, but in addition to the local NPS units I was able to activate in 2016, I can now do similar operations from other metro area locations, such as William O’Brien State Park, Fort Snelling State Park, and Afton State Park, as well as from most of the other state parks in Minnesota and surrounding states.

Most of my activations during 2016 focused on metro-area parks, but some of them, such as my activations of the Lewis & Clark Trail and the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, were done in conjunction with business travel.  Great minds obviously think alike, as shown by Vance, N3VEM‘s recent activation of a metropolitan park in Florida while traveling for business.

n3vemStation

Photo courtesy of N3VEM.

As he details at his blog, he recently had a business trip to Florida from his home in Pennsylvania. He immediately began researching parks in the area, and discovered Oleta River State Park, which is actually located minutes from downtown Miami. Rather than book a stay in a more conventional hotel, he rented a rustic cabin at the park, which allowed him do his activation after work.  He packed his FT-857, which is almost identical to the FT-817 I used for most of my activations, the difference being that his radio puts out 100 watts as opposed to my 5 watts.  His complete station set up in the cabin is shown at the left.  His antenna consisted of dipoles for 40 and 20, shown below.

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Photo courtesy of N3VEM.

One of the major successes of the NPOTA program was to encourage hams to learn new operating techniques.  In particular, many hams discovered that Morse code (CW) can be extremely effective if conditions are marginal or if the station is less than optimum.  Because NPOTA focused on portable operations, most of the activators were using stations that were less than optimal.  For that reason, more than one ham discovered or rediscovered how effective CW can be, even with extremely simple equipment.

n3vemQSOIt looks like that tradition is continuing with WWFF, since N3VEM became one of the hams to discover CW.  Vance has been licensed only since 2014, and by the time he got his license, the requirement to pass a code test to get a license had been gone for a number of years.  But even though it’s no longer required, it’s still permitted, and he used this activation to make his first ever CW contacts.  And his very first CW contact was with me!

To show how versatile CW can be, it should be pointed out that Vance didn’t even have a key with him.  But like my radio, his allows the microphone to be used as an emergency key, and he used the mike buttons to send the dots and dashes.  When I worked him, the band conditions between Florida and Minnesota were very poor, and I could barely hear his signal.  It would have been absolutely impossible to work him using voice.  But with CW, it was a fairly easy contact, despite his signal being almost completely buried in the noise.

Our first CW QSO was very slow, probably about 5 words per minute.  But I’m sure he’ll discover that speed will increase rapidly as he gets on the air, and I have no doubt that I’ll have future CW QSO’s with him.



Four Reasons Why You Need Two Radios: 1936

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Eighty years ago, consumers buying a new radio had come to expect that they could trade in the old set. This presented a headache for the retailer, since any sale of the used set would probably cut into sales of new sets. The trade press often contained pointers on what to do with these old sets, such as donating them to charitable organizations, or selling them in bulk to other dealers, hopefully in another town, so that they would be another market’s problem.

The October 1936 issue of Radio Retailing included this graphic to help salesman convince buyers that they would be better off having two sets.
The page was designed to be shared with customers, and noted that “many questions asked by the consumer are difficult to answer because of his limited technical knowledge and inability to visualize.” Thus, the graphic was easier to understand, “and most people believe much of what they see in print.” Thus, graphics such as this one were printed to assist the salesman close a deal by “picturing the answer to a specific question which introduces selling resistance.”

This page notes that the old radio is worth more than the maximum trade-in value any dealer could allow, and suggests four uses for the old set. First, it could be moved to the playroom, allowing the parents to “duck the kid’s programs without breaking their hearts.”

Another viable option would be the bedroom. The magazine notes that it could be connected to an automatic time switch for a musical alarm.

In the kitchen, “any good serviceman can remove the chassis and build it in” for a truly modern kitchen.

The final use would be in the “whoopee room,” where we see a group playing ping pong and enjoying cool beverages, listening to the old set which has been “painted, in color, for that modernistic touch.”



NPOTA: Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail

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Preparing to send RF ‘cross the wide Missouri.

During the 2016  ARRL National Parks On The Air (NPOTA) event,  Amateur Radio operators are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS) by setting up their equipment in NPS units  to make contact with other Amateurs around the world.  Since the beginning of the year, the event has been extremely popular, with over 13,000 activations from 450 different different units of the NPS and over 700,000 individual two-way contacts.  As I’ve reported in other posts, I’ve made contact with 281 different parks and operated multiple times from six parks in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

One of the event’s successes has been encouraging visits to the parks.  Until recently, my activations have been confined to the NPS units in Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Last week, I had to be in Sioux City, Iowa, for one of my continuing legal education programs.  The city lies along the path taken by Lewis and Clark as the traveled from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean, and is therefore part of an NPS unit, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.  Because the trail’s sheer length, and because it passes through so many other notable sites, it is the NPOTA’s most popular activation site, with over 13,000 individual contacts made.  Since my son had recently been studying Lewis and Clark in school, I decided to bring him along.

Sioux City marks the point where the only death during the 1804-06 Corps of Discovery’s expedition took place.  Sgt. Charles Floyd is buried under a prominent obelisk on a bluff overlooking the river.  The Sioux City riverfront contains two museums devoted to Lewis and Clark’s journey.  The first is in a drydocked former riverboat, the M/V Sergeant Floyd.  The ship was an Army Corps of Engineers Inspection Vessel.  Interestingly, the ship contains a ham station, although it’s supposed to be a recreation of the ship’s radio room.  As you can see from the photo below, the radio room is equipped with an E.F. Johnson Viking Valiant and a Hallicrafters S-40.  Even though these amateur rigs appear to be out of place, it was interesting to see this inadvertent ham station set up.

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dsc01371The museum also contains the forensic reconstruction of Sgt. Floyd shown here, created from a plaster cast of his skull.

The second museum on the riverfront is the Sioux City Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, which includes animatronic versions of Lewis, Clark, President Jefferson. and “Seaman,” the expedition’s Newfoundland dog.

Conditions were relatively poor the day I visited the site, and my initial attempt with a mobile antenna was unsuccessful.  Since the day was nice, I returned and set up a dipole at a picnic shelter overlooking the river and made ten contacts on 20 meter CW.

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1946 NPOTA Activation

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During the 2016 centennial of the National Park Service, the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) is conducting its National Parks On The Air (NPOTA) event.  Amateur Radio operators are setting up their stations in various units of the National Park Service (NPS) and making contact with other Amateurs around the world. Since the beginning of the year, the event has been extremely popular, with over 11,000 activations from 450 different different units of the NPS (with only 39 not yet activated), with over 640,000 individual two-way contacts.  As I’ve reported in other posts, I’ve made contact with 251 different parks, operated multiple times from six parks in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and plan to activate additional parks in the Midwest before the end of the year.

Even though this event is recent, operating portable from the National Parks is nothing new, as shown from the photograph above, which appeared seventy years ago this month in the September 1946 issue of Radio News.

Shown here are members of the Washington Radio Club operating Field Day 1946 from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Shown here are Dick Houston, W4QPW (apparently at the mike), along with Major Eric Ilott, G2JK, of the British Army (later VE3XE), and club secretary Barbara Houston. They are operating a 25 watt phone rig on 10 meters, with a Hallicrafters Sky Champion serving as the receiver. Power was supplied by a 300 watt gasoline generator.

Ilott, apparently at the left in the photo, served in the British and Canadian military until his retirement as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1974. He immigrated to Canada in 1947. During the war, he served as a listener for the British War Office, sending reports to Bletchley Park. Among his accomplishments after the war was bringing the first ever television signal to Kingston, Ontario, from an antenna atop a water tower. He died in 2015 at the age of 95.  (For another look at the early days of bringing distant TV signals to town, please see my earlier post on the first TV in Marathon, Ontario.)

1946 was the tenth running of the ARRL Field Day, an event in which hams set up stations at portable locations to make as many contacts as possible.

I previously wrote about the 1941 Field Day, in which the high scoring station had made 1112 contacts. That would be the last Field Day before the war, and the one shown here was the first postwar Field Day. According to the results in the February 1947 issue of QST, the top 1946 scorer made 809 contacts.

But the results article noted that it would be pointless to compare the 1946 results with those of prewar Field Days, since operating conditions as of June 1946 were quite different. In particular, hams had not yet regained access to the 160, 40, and 20 meter bands, which had been the workhorses for the prewar events. The 1946 Field Day was limited to 80 and 10 meters on HF, along with the 50, 144, and 420 MHz bands.

Shenandoah was not the only national park being activated in 1946. In addition, according to the results article, there were operations from Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and a battlefield national park in Virginia, as well as numerous other venues.

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Photo courtesy of N3KN.

While the Washington Radio Club took the honors of activating Shenandoah National Park in 1946, my own 2016 contact took place on February 8 on 20 meter phone.  Fortunately, the 20 meter band was returned to hams shortly after the war, as the contact on 10 or 80 meters in 1946 would have been considerably more challenging.  My contact was with Kay Craigie, N3KN, shown here.  In addition to being an avid NPOTA chaser, activator, and member of the NPOTA Facebook group, Kay is the immediate past president of the ARRL (a select group which included Herbert Hoover, Jr.).  She was at the helm of the ARRL when the NPOTA event was proposed and adopted.

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NPOTA: St. Croix National Scenic Riverway

St. Croix River looking north from Interstate State Park, Minnesota. By Aaron Fulkerson –  CC BY 2.5.

Last week, I did two National Parks On The Air (NPOTA) activations of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.  I did both of them from William O’Brien State Park in Minnesota.  My station consisted of my  Yaesu FT-817, powered by a 12 volt sealed lead acid fish finder battery,  The antenna consisted of a Hamstick mounted on the back of my car.  The QRP (low power, 5 watts) radio and very modest antenna have proven quite effective, especially on 20 meters.

During the ARRL NPOTA event, Amateur Radio operators are setting up their stations in various units of the National Park Service (NPS) and making contact with other Amateurs around the world. Since the beginning of the year, there have been over 11,000 activations from 449 different different units of the NPS (with only 40 not yet activated), with over 600,000 individual two-way contacts.

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William O’Brien State Park, Minnesota. By Greg Seitz (The.dharma.bum at English Wikipedia) – Photo by Greg Seitz (The.dharma.bum), CC BY-SA 2.5.

I made the quick jaunt to William O’Brien on Friday in order to work Patrick, N9OQT, who was set up at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Indiana.  Patrick was there doing an Amateur Radio demonstration for a conference of state park superintendents from around the country, and he put out a call for activators to work him from different state parks around the country.  My five watts can be extremely effective using CW (Morse Code), but I thought it would be a challenging contact using voice.  However, since one of the purposes of the event was to demonstrate Amateur Radio to the gathered park officials, Patrick wanted to use voice only.  I started out by setting up in the parking lot of the park’s visitor center.  Even though this location is quite a distance from the river, it’s at a much higher elevation, and I thought it would make the difficult contact easier.

I needn’t have worried, since he copied my 5 watt signal quite well.  I immediately drove down to the river, and he copied me quite well from there as well.  He made a total of 124 contacts, including a total of eight state parks around the country.

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Patrick Twigg, N9OQT photo.

Patrick’s operating location was an interesting juxtaposition of history and modern technology.  He was set up in the recreation of Thomas Lincoln’s (Abe’s father) 1820’s carpentry shop.  In addition, he reported local interference from roosters crowing in the background.  His radio and logging computer are shown on the old workbench, with the power source being the battery shown on the floor.

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Carpentry Shop at Lincoln Boyhood Home, Patrick Twigg N9OQT photo.

After working Patrick, I went to CW and worked about 30 more contacts over the course of the next hour.

On Saturday, my son and I made another trip to the St. Croix River, and I decided to do another activation.  We spent most of the day exploring the glacial potholes at Interstate State Park in Taylors Falls, Minnesota.  The parking lot near the potholes is more than a hundred feet from the river, and the other unit of the park has somewhat difficult access due to road construction.  So we decided to stop at William O’Brien on the way home, where I set up in the same spot as the previous day near the boat landing.  This time, I didn’t get “spotted” on the DX cluster, so I spent about an hour answering other calls in order to make my required 10 contacts.  The most interesting contact was with Jim, K7MK, who was doing a SOTA activation in Idaho.

Shafer Butte, Idaho. National Forest Service photo.

Shafer Butte, Idaho. National Forest Service photo.

Summits On The Air (SOTA) is another Amateur Radio activity in which hams set up temporary stations on various mountain summits.  These can range from very modest summits that can be reached by car, to ones requiring serious mountaineering skills.  Jim’s location appears to be one that was somewhere between these two extremes, as he was atop the 2311 meter Shafer Butte in Idaho.  He reports that his activation involved a 6 mile hike, including a 1400 foot vertical ascent.

William O’Brien is a 1520 acre park founded in 1947, and located on the St. Croix River less than an hour from Minneapolis and St. Paul.  It’s location close to the metro area makes it an extremely popular park, but its being on the St. Croix can make it very much of a wilderness experience.

Minnesota’s Interstate State Park is located slightly further away from the Twin Cities, in Taylors Falls, Minnesota.  It was founded in 1895.  The main visitor center is located immediately adjacent to the downtown area of Taylors Falls, and the campground and other facilities are located about a mile down the river.  It’s also a very popular park with Twin Cities residents to explore the glacial potholes, and is also a popular venue for rock climbing.  It is located across the river from the Wisconsin state park bearing the same name, from which I’ve done a previous NPOTA activation.



NPOTA: Touro Synagogue, Rhode Island

Touro Synagogue. National Park Service photo.

Touro Synagogue. National Park Service photo.

During the ARRL National Parks On The Air (NPOTA) event, Amateur Radio operators are setting up their stations in various units of the National Park Service (NPS) and making contact with other Amateurs around the world. Since the beginning of the year, there have been over 9000 activations from 444 different different units of the NPS (with only 44 not yet activated), with over a half million individual contacts.

One interesting aspect of this event is learning about the different parks, some of which I did not even know existed.   For example, in an earlier post, I wrote about the fascinating history of Kalaupapa National Historical Park in Hawaii, a remote settlement originally set aside for persons suffering from leprosy.

Synagogue interior. Wikipedia photo.

This week, I learned, by talking to someone there, of another important site in American history, Touro Synagogue National Historic Site in Newport, Rhode Island.  In addition to being the oldest synagogue in the United States, the site is important as a symbol of religious liberty for all Americans.  The synagogue still houses an active congregation, Congregation Jeshuat Israel, as it has since 1763.  It was designated a National Historic Site in 1946, and is an affiliated area of the National Park Service.

The congregation itself was founded in 1658.  The ancestors of the founders had fled Europe for the Caribbean in search of religious freedom, and the founders of the synagogue ultimately fled to Rhode Island for even greater liberty.  It was well established by 1790, when President George Washington wrote his letter to the “Hebrew congregation at Newport,” in which he vowed that the new nation would give “to bigotry no sanction and to persecution no assistance.”

The congregation does an annual reading of President Washington’s letter, the next scheduled for August 21, 2016.

This week, the park was put on the air by students from Rogers High School Ham Radio Club, W1VRC.  Most national parks can be easily “activated” by individual hams simply pulling in and operating from a parking lot or picnic table.  But many culturally sensitive sites, such as this synagogue, require more advance planning, and W1VRC worked with the site to do an activation that was both sensitive to the site, and also well planned from a radio point of view.  With their advance planning, they were able to put up a 132 foot long Windom antenna, that put out an effective signal but was unobtrusive.

In sanctioning the activation, the Synagogue found especially compelling the youth involvement as the students made contacts.  The young operators all did an excellent job, and there were many compliments as to their professionalism as they  made 185 contacts, including one with me.  This operation was actually a trial run for a larger activation, which will take place on August 7, 2016.  If you’re a ham, I encourage you to try to work them.  The best place for up-to-date information on frequencies is the NPOTA Facebook group. More information about W1VRC’s activation is also available at the school’s website.

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Field Day 1941

19410609MilwSentinel

Seventy-five years ago, this day’s issue of the Milwaukee Sentinel, June 9, 1941, carried this report of ARRL Field Day, which had just concluded.

The Milwaukee hams had operated for 26 hours from a location at 43rd Street and West Edgerton Avenue in Milwaukee, a site which “presented a strange mixture of homemade and expensive commercial equipment. Above the tent strewn field a 60 foot all-wave telescopic antenna reached up for messages from the sky.”

The article reported that 291 contacts were made with all nine call areas. The furthest contact was with Puerto Rico. The paper noted that this was a test of emergency communications, and demonstrated how Milwaukee would reach the outside world should catastrophe wipe out power and telephone lines.

This was to be the last pre-war Field Day, with Amateur Radio operation silenced after Pearl Harbor. In 1940, the FCC had severely restricted portable operation, restricting it to weekends, only with self-powered apparatus intended for emergency use. 48 hour advance notice was also required. At the ARRL’s request, the FCC relaxed these requirements in a March 11, 1941 order:

It Is Ordered, That during the period of the American Radio Relay League Field Day test from 4:00 P.M. E.S.T., June 7, 1941, to 6:00 P.M. E.S.T., June 8, 1941, the prohibition contained in Commission Order No. 73 shall not apply to communications transmitted by licensed portable and portable-mobile stations participating in such tests.

The announcement of this order in the May 1941 issue cautioned that the relaxation applied only to stations participating in Field Day.

Results were published in the January 1941 issue of QST, and noted that at least 2180 individuals had participated from 163 club stations and 119 non-club stations.  The Milwaukee group’s showing was overshadowed by the Tri-County Radio Association of Plainfield, NJ, W2GW/2, with 1112 contacts.  That club’s contacts were evenly split between CW and phone.  They had 163 worked on 160 meters, 447 on 80 meters, 245 on 40 meters, 32 on 10 meters, 20 on 5 meters, and 61 on 2-1/2 meters.

Like most Amateur Radio traditions, Field Day resumed after the war.  This year’s running will take place on June 25-26.  The event has continued to grow over the years.  In the 2015 running, the high scorer, Potomic Valley Radio Club and Columbia Amateur Radio Association, W3AO, logged a total of 9700 contacts from 18 transmitters.

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NPOTA: National Trails Day from Jay Cooke State Park, MN

TR04aJune 4, 2016 was American Hiking Society’s National Trails Day®.  Since many trails are units of the National Park Service, they are taking part in National Parks On The Air (NPOTA), an event in which amateur radio operators set up portable stations at National Park units and make contact with other amateurs at home.  The event has been very popular, and there have been hundreds of thousands of contacts made from the parks.  The North Country National Scenic Trail qualifies as a “National Park,” allowing me to operate from one of the Minnesota state parks crossed by the trail.  The North Country Trail extends from eastern New York to North Dakota.  As the trail passes through Minnesota, it becomes the Superior Hiking Trail, which runs from Jay Cooke State Park along the north shore of Lake Superior to Grand Portage.

On National Trails Day, a group of hams put together an event called  Light Up The Trail in which stations were set up at various locations in all of the states along the North Country Trail.  As I did a couple of weeks ago, I operated from Jay Cooke State Park in Minnesota, about 25 miles south of Duluth.

The weather wasn’t quite as cooperative as it had been with my previous activation, since there was a light rain when my son and I arrived at the park.  Undaunted, we moved a picnic table close to two trees what would serve as a support for a tarp.  I used my trusty golf ball retriever as a tent pole on one corner, and secured the other corner to the table itself.  A few taut line hitches had the protective shelter up in a few minutes, and I was ready to get on the air.  My original plan was to set up dipoles for 40 and 20 meters, but with the rain coming down, I decided to stick to 20 meters only, since the total antenna length was only 32 feet.  I used an inverted vee with the center supported by the golf ball retriever, and the ends tied to a tree and another picnic table.  The radio consisted of my  Yaesu FT-817, powered by a 12 volt sealed lead acid fish finder battery,

Old fort at Crown Point, New York, the eastern terminus of the North Country Trail, and my first contact. Wikipedia photo.

The activation was shorter than I had planned, but I managed 16 contacts in less than an hour of operating.  My very first contact was with N1NDN who came back to my voice CQ from the eastern end of the trail at Crown Point State Park on Lake Champlain, New York.  He had a very good signal, and didn’t seem to have any trouble copying my 5 watt signal.  I also made contacts with two other parks, W3OK at Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, and W5NO at Gulf Islands National Seashore.

My last contact was with AA0AW, who was operating from the North Country Trail in Duluth.  After packing up, we made a short stop at their location for an “eyeball QSO.”  A group of Duluth hams had a large multi-operator operation, and had worked about 150 contacts by the time we stopped by.

Swinging Bridge prior to 2012 flood. Wikipedia photo.

St. Louis River, just upstream from the park. Wikipedia photo.

The site from which I was operating,  Jay Cooke State Park, lies next to a rapids of the St. Louis River. Because the rapids is impassible by canoe, it was the location of a portage used by both Native Americans and European fur traders, and remained in use until the 1870’s when a railroad was built in the area.   The portage was an important link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.  From the portage, travelers could navigate the river to Savannah Portage, a six-mile link to the Mississippi watershed.  Jay Cooke park was formed in 1915 and remained largely undeveloped until the 1930’s when the Civilian Conservation Corps built a number of structures. I was right next to two of these. The most iconic structure in the park is the Swinging Bridge, a pedestrian bridge crossing the river. A rickety version was in place as early as 1924 (a picture is available at this site), until 1933 when the more substantial suspension bridge was built by the CCC.  That bridge endured until a massive flood in 2012, but the bridge has since been rebuilt to its 1930’s specifications.

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River Inn Visitor Center, Jay Cooke State Park. Wikipedia photo.

My operating location was right behind the River Inn, a picnic shelter and small museum, also built by the CCC. I toyed with the idea of operating from inside the building, which had a roaring fire going in its fireplace. But unfortunately, there was no convenient way to get my antenna cable outside, so I decided to go with my expedient blue tarp.

Back of the River Inn from my operating location. The golf ball retriever is visible holding up the tarp and antenna.

Back of the River Inn from my operating location.  The golf ball retriever is visible holding up the tarp and antenna.

The 2012 flood which destroyed the bridge continues to have an impact.  Minnesota Highway 210, which serves as the access to the park (and has the distinction of being a Minnesota state highway running through a small section of Wisconsin) is still closed east of the park.  The $21.3 million reconstruction of the highway is scheduled to be completed in October 2016.

Here’s some raw video shot by my son, which will give you an idea of my operating location:

 

 

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Stealth Slinky Antenna

SlinkyAntenna1Forty years ago, the May-June issue of Elementary Electronics carried an interesting idea for a stealth antenna. While the article was aimed at SWL’s, the idea is equally intriguing for hams confronted with the need for a clandestine antenna.

I’ve operated with antennas hanging down from the side of a building. They’ve generally performed well, although depending on the type of construction, they often get out better in one direction. For short-term use, I generally just let a wire out through an open window and retract it when needed. The idea shown here automates the process a bit.

 

As you can see, the antenna itself consists of a Slinky®, mounted in a tin can just outside the window. To extend and retract it, it’s connected to an inexpensive fishing reel inside. To keep everything neat, there’s a piece of conduit running between the reel and the can. To deploy the antenna, you simply push the button on the reel. When you’re done with it, you simply reel it in. To keep prying eyes from noticing, the article recommends painting everything black.

Exterior portion of the antenna.

Exterior portion of the antenna.

 

 

 

 

 

Interior view.

Interior view.

 

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Tips for NPOTA Chasers and Activators

National Parks on the Air

After two and a half months, the ARRL’s National Parks On The Air (NPOTA) event has been a great success. As I’ve reported in earlier posts, the object is for amateur radio operators to operate from units of the National Park Service (NPS), and for hams at home to contact as many of those stations as possible. As of February 28, there have been a total of 136,539 confirmed contacts from 243 NPS units, with a total of 606 separate “activations.” As the spring and summer months approach, this number is sure to increase considerably. Many notable parks have not yet been activated. For example, Glacier National Park in Montana and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota have not yet been on the air, but surely will with warmer weather.

Some sites, such as Isle Royale National Park, are currently inaccessible, and I know that activations are planned later in the year.

So far, even though I have yet to set foot inside an actual national park, I have made sixteen activations. This is because I live very close to two NPS units, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, and the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. Because the NPOTA rules permit operation from within 100 feet of these rivers, I have been able to go to one of them with a portable transmitter and antenna on my car and activate them on short notice, such as over a lunch break. Others have made more contacts than I have, but I’ve made approximately 300. These included contacts as far away as Morocco and Cape Verde Island, and have been on the 40, 30, 20, 6, and 2 meter ham bands.

In addition, I’ve made contact with 125 different parks. These stats place me in 30th place nationwide out of 484 “activators,” and 208th place worldwide out of 6035 “chasers.”

In short, I’m not at the very top tier, and there are other experts more qualified than I am, but I do have enough experience to give some advice to both chasers and activators.

Tips For Chasers

Many of the activations result in huge pileups, and they can be somewhat daunting to a ham unaccustomed to them. However, even a very modest station is capable of working most of the parks on the air. You do not need to have a superstation! Most of the chasers have stations similar to mine, running about 100 watts to a wire antenna. Even stations with amps and large antennas don’t need them, and I’m guessing that the amp rarely gets turned on, even by those near the top of the leader board. If you have a kilowatt and a beam, great. But whether or not you do, it’s more important to rely on your skill.

The easiest way to beat a pileup is to avoid it entirely. If you get there before the pileup starts, you’ll get through with no problem at all. You’ll probably even have time to chat with the operator and learn about the park, rather than simply giving your signal report and state because others are waiting in line. And the way to avoid the pileup is to use your VFO knob and tune around the band listening for weak stations. Tune slowly, listen for weak signals, and see if they are saying “CQ National Parks On The Air.” Another sure fire way to spot a park is to listen for slightly stronger stations saying something like, “thanks for activating.” When you hear that, you know that there’s an activator on that frequency. And if they haven’t yet been spotted on the DX cluster, they will hear you. Remember, you don’t have a superstation, but your station is probably better than theirs. They are probably operating with low power, with a hastily set up antenna, and probably from a less than optimal radio location. If you can hear them, it’s almost guaranteed that they will be able to hear you very well, as long as you get there before the hundreds of other stations who will want to call them.

You can put yourself in this position by turning off the computer and tuning the radio dial. You’re more likely to find national park stations during the daylight hours. (I predict this will change in the summer, as NPS campgrounds fill up with hams working the lower bands throughout the night.)  There are somewhat more on weekends, but there are many on the air weekdays. If you simply tune the bands (20 and 40 are the most commonly used), you will make many contacts without having to worry about pileups.

If you are near your computer, when you work the station, ask the station whether they would like you to “spot” them on a site such as DXsummit.fi or on the NPOTA Facebook group. The operator will probably say yes, since that will almost guarantee that he or she will then get the required ten contacts.

I can’t stress the importance of tuning the bands. On numerous activations, I have been calling CQ NPOTA with absolutely no takers. It can seem as if the band is totally dead or that my radio is broken. Then, I’ll finally work one station. After about two minutes, my radio invariably explodes with dozens of stations calling me. I’m not any louder than I was before. But I later discover that the first station spotted me about a minute before the pileup started.

There will be times when you can’t avoid the pileup. Once an activator has been spotted, there will be a pileup, and if you want to work them, you’ll need to jump into the fray. If you keep calling and calling, and they keep coming back to other stations, it can seem like those other stations must have more power or a better antenna. But that’s rarely the case. The best way to break a pileup is not with power or big antennas, but with operator skill.

The first step is to listen. First of all, please follow any instructions given by the operator. If the operator is going “by the numbers,” and asking for 4’s to call, then please don’t call unless you have a 4 in your callsign. They won’t work you, and when it really is your turn, you might be ignored.

You also want to listen to figure out the best way to call. In particular, see how long it typically takes between the operator saying “QRZ” and when he or she takes the first call. If it’s a modest pileup, it might be just a second. If it’s a huge pileup, it might be several seconds. This is because everyone starts calling right at first. It’s usually totally indecipherable at that point, and the operator on the other end can’t make out any calls until things settle down a bit. The secret of getting through is giving your call right at the moment when things die down. So listen to a few exchanges, and see how long it takes. If the activator usually takes about 10 seconds to come back to someone, then wait about 9 seconds, and slowly give your call, one time, phonetically. Your call is the one that will get heard.

If the operator is coming back immediately, this means that the pileup has subsided, and you’re probably best giving your call quickly, one time, phonetically. It’s almost always best to give your full call, rather than just part of it.

Either way, after you have sent your call, listen carefully. If the activator comes back to you, then come right back with your report and state, and maybe a quick pleasantry.

I don’t have a kilowatt, and I don’t have a beam. With 100 watts and a dipole, I’m almost able to get through any pileup by using these tips. In fact, I’ve had a number of “park-to-park” contacts where I was running only 5 watts to a mobile antenna. I almost always had to get through a pileup to make these contacts. But with careful timing, it’s usually possible.

If you are looking for a particular chaser who you think will be using CW or PSK31, then it’s a good idea to check their call sign on the Reverse Beacon Network or PSK Reporter websites. As soon as they start calling CQ, the skimmers will pick them up, and you’ll be directed to their exact frequency. Chances are, you’ll get there long before the pileup.

And speaking of CW and digital modes, you will add to your totals by using one of these modes in addition to SSB.  Many of my activations have been CW only.  Most are phone only, but by using CW or digital, you have an edge over the other chasers who are using phone only.

Tips For Activators

Setting up my superstation at WR09.

Setting up my superstation at WR09.

So far, all of my activations have been with 5 watts, running my  Yaesu FT-817 to a Hamstick antenna mounted on the back of my car. When the weather gets nicer, I’ll get out of the car and put up a bigger antenna. But you can be quite successful as an activator with a very modest station.

Your first step is to find a suitable location. Since the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers span many miles, this hasn’t been difficult for me, and I’ve been able to scout out some good radio locations on bluffs overlooking the rivers. On the other hand, I’ve done some operating down near the water level, so even a site that is not optimal for radio will get out.

Whether or not to ask permission is something that you will need to consider on a case-by-case basis. If you’re operating from your car with no external antennas, then it’s probably not necessary if you’re in a legal parking spot. If you’re at a picnic table with a battery and free-standing antenna, then it’s still probably not necessary. If you’re going to install a crank-up tower right next to Old Faithful, then it probably is necessary.  It’s best to use your common sense in deciding whether you need to ask.

For most of my activations so far, I’ve not asked for any kind of permission. These were mobile operations from parking lots of city parks and a state rest area. Since I’m using the location (a parking lot) for its customary purpose (parking), I don’t believe there’s any need to ask permission. More importantly, there’s nobody to ask permission. I’m simply parking in a legal parking spot and sitting in my car. Occasionally, the police have driven through, but paid no attention to me.

My assistants scouting out s location at AA11.

My assistants scouting out a location at AA11.

For an operation in a State Park, I did speak to the rangers beforehand, but that was mostly to let them know that I would be operating later in the year with portable antennas. While I was talking to them, I let them know that I would be operating from the parking lot that day, and they had no objections. The key is to be polite and professional.

To make it a successful activation, you need to make ten contacts. These contacts need to be entered on LOTW, but they do not need to be confirmed by the other station. This part of the event is based on the honor system. And there is also no need for the stations you work to be active “chasers.” You simply need to make ten contacts on any band or mode with ten other hams. The easiest way to accomplish this is to get yourself spotted. If you have internet access at your operating location, you can self-spot yourself on a site such as DXSummit.fi. In the comments, just put “NPOTA” and the unit number.

If you don’t have internet access, but do have cell phone access, another alternative is to call a friend and have them spot you. Or if you’re in an area with active repeaters, work another ham on the repeater and ask them to spot you. The repeater contact won’t count for NPOTA purposes, but it will get you spotted and get those additional contacts.

If you’re unable to use a cell phone or internet, or simply don’t want to rely on the spotting networks, then you’ll be on your own making your ten required contacts. But remember, there is no requirement that those ten contacts be with active chasers. And there’s certainly no requirement that those contacts be in response to your CQ. So in my most recent activations, I’ve discovered that the best strategy is to not worry about the spotting networks, and just tune the dial and make ten contacts with anyone, as soon as I get set up.

On a weekday, this can be challenging, becuase you might not find ten stations calling CQ. (However, keep in mind that there are almost always other NPOTA activators in the field, and they are calling CQ. On most of my excursions, I’ve worked one or two other NPOTA stations, and these count toward my ten.)  And I haven’t done it myself yet, but other hams have suggested the County Hunters Net. Whatever county you’re in (and you need to know what county you’re in), chances are, someone will be looking for it, and you will get some or all of your ten contacts that way.

On weekends, it’s almost always possible to get your ten contacts in short order, because there is almost always some kind of contest going on. In fact, there are occasional contests during the week. Before you head out, check the contest schedule to learn which contests to look for, and what exchange you need to give. Today, for example, the Virginia and Louisiana QSO parties were taking place, and there were many stations on the air in Louisiana and Virginia looking for contacts with anyone. I wound up making eleven contacts in the Russian DX contest. I checked the rules of that contest, and QSO’s with U.S. and Canadian stations counted for contest credit, so there were plenty of big gun stations eager to work me. During the ARRL International DX Contest, I even made a number of DX contacts, although they were tougher than domestic contacts.

You should try to find out the contest exchange before the constest. However, if you’re not sure, just give a signal report and your state. If the other operator needs something else, they’ll ask for it, and they’ll be happy you took the time to give them one more contact.

After you have your ten required contacts, you’ll probably want to call CQ and see if you can generate a pileup. At first, it might be a lonely proposition with few if any stations coming back to you. You can ask the first few stations to spot you, and usually they will. Once they do, you are almost guaranteed a pileup.

Being on the receiving end of a pileup can be daunting at first, but you’ll get through it. At first, you might not be able to make out anyone’s call. But eventually, you’ll hear either a full callsign or part of one, and you can come back to that station. Eventually, you’ll chip away at it, and you’ll get them all in the log.

I’m generally not a fan of going by “numbers.” For one thing, you probably have a modest station, and are subject to fading in and out. You might have great propagation to 7-Land when you’re busy working 1’s. But by the time you get to the 7’s, the propagation is gone. For this reason, it’s probably not a good idea to work by numbers on a routine basis. But if things are totally out of hand, it might be one strategy you need to employ.

Similarly, I’ve seen very few NPOTA operations where operating split would add much benefit. “Split” means that you transmit on one frequency, and the stations calling you transmit on another frequency a few kHz away. This might make things slightly easier for the chasers, since it lessens the chance of someone transmitting on top of you. But it doesn’t really make your life any easier or increase your number of contacts by an appreciable amount. If you’re activating P5 (North Korea), then running split might be a very good idea. But if you’re activating Yellowstone National Park, it’s probably not necessary.

I’m definitely not an expert, but my five watts to a hamstick and 16 successful activations (and a couple of failed ones where I didn’t make ten contacts) show that it’s possible to be an activator without a major investment in equipment or time. Later this year, I’ll do some activations that are a bit more extravagant.

Soon after your activation, you will need to upload your log to LOTW. I haven’t bothered with any kind of software for logging. I just use pen and paper, and enter it into the computer when I get home. LOTW can appear confusing at first, but once you are set up, it’s quite simple type in your QSO’s and upload the log.

Even though you might not realize it, wherever you live in the United States, there’s probably a National Park Service unit located within an hour of your home. If you get a chance, you should get out there and see what it’s like to be on the receving end of a pileup.

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