Scoping Out Lambs Knoll Summit

a topographic map showing APRS pings from Lambs KnollThere are a limited number of SOTA peaks within a short drive of Washington, DC, and most of them, particularly the ones with zero activations,  are on private property. After spending a little time with the SOTA database, I found one promising peak less than an hour’s drive away: Lambs Knoll,  W3/WE-007. The most attractive feature is that it is located on the Appalachian Trail, and as a plus, it is line of sight to the VWS repeater.

A Google Map view shows that the trail winds back and forth, with a road running up the middle of it towards a facility on the peak. Even in the aerial photo, it is clear that there are two large log periodic antennas on that site, which turns out to be an FAA facility. By some accounts, this facility started as a Cold War continuity of government site (designated Corkscrew), but presumably, it no longer performs that function.

I drove to Fox’s Gap, along Reno Monument Road. Just off the side of the road, there is a dirt parking lot. The monument to General Reno and some historic markers are also there. The road leading to the FAA site is marked “road may close without notice”, but the metal gate somewhat up the road does not look like it has moved in recent times. The Appalachian Trail crosses Reno Monument Road and runs through the parking lot and into the woods.

The white-blaze trail winds through the woods and eventually rises towards a clearing, where large high tension lines run down the hill. The trail then continues for some distance and forks, with a blue trail running level, and the white trail continuing upward. The path becomes increasingly steep and rocky. On the day that I went, I ran into a good number of hikers on this part of the trail. At one point, the trail crosses the road to the FAA facility and then continues upward. From here, the ascent is not so steep, though, and the trail wraps around the facility.

An aerial shot fo two log periodic antennas within the compound
Log Periodic Antennas from Google Maps

At the point that I thought I’d have line of sight to Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, I was successful in hitting the 70cm VWS repeater with my handheld at 5W using my Comet antenna. From that same position (the red dot on the above topopgraphic map), I was able to get acknowledgement to APRS squirts from three digipeaters.

After climbing back down, I drove the access road up to the facility. It is a nicely paved road and winds up the hill. At the point where the power lines cross the road, a fence runs along each side of the road, blocking access to the cleared strip of land under the lines. There are gates in the fences, but they are closed. The Appalachian Trail crosses the road higher up, with some minor signage to indicate the intersection.

At the top of the hill, the road splits with the main facility to the right and an emergency vehicle entrance straight ahead. I did not approach the main entrance, but it looks to be  a remotely-controlled electronic fence, probably with a card reader and some cameras. From the front of the facility, I could not see the log periodic or other recognizable antennas.

To reduce the climb time, one could probably drive up the road, drop operators off, and park the car back near the Reno Monument. Park the car along the side of the road is not a good option. The weakness of this plan is that whomever drove the car either has to wait in the parking lot for a “pick us up” call, or has to hike the whole trail — but it would allow the operators to get into position more quickly and have a longer operating day.

There is no indicate of hours of operation along the trail — it is not a park that closes at night, but it is probably best to tackle it in the day time. There may be some sort of camping along the blue trail, although I’d just drive out for the day.

Sugarloaf & QRPTTF

French Bread Loaf, Copyright © 2004 David MonniauxThe weekend was the QRP TTF event, and this year’s rules favored stations that did double duty as SOTA (summits on the air) stations. The Vienna Wireless Society made its annual pilgrimage to Glyndon Park in Vienna, Virginia, and I was sorely tempted to hang out there and partake in the barbecuage. However, the SOTA bug still had its fangs in me, so I headed to Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland, or in SOTA terms peak W3/CR-003.

Sugarloaf Mountain is in private hands, but the land owners have opened it up for public use. The lone peak rises prominently above the surrounding farmland. Access is not bad at all — there is a road that runs up the mountain, with three parking lots providing views to the West, East, and South (towards the Potomac River). I had downloaded a trail map from the Sugarloaf website and decided to approach the summit from the Western Overlook.

The path up is well maintained, and consists predominantly of stone stairs. There’s a handrail at the steepest parts. Little kids were running up and down the stairs, impatient for the adults. I took a few breathers on the way up, but it wasn’t too bad a climb, even with equipment.

When I got up there, I found a slanting rock at the very top and made it my base. Being on the edge of the Washington Metro area (and perhaps the Southern edge of the Baltimore region), there were lots of visitors, some who watched with amusement as I tossed soda bottles with strings into the trees, and others who asked me questions about the hobby.

I set up the 20m station first, a TenTec 1320, which I had built from a kit three years ago, plus a longwire antenna and the Hendricks SLT+ tuner. The usual. Later in the day, I put up a longer wire antenna and brought out the 40m Rockmite.

Once at the top, I checked into the club via the 2m repeater, but found that the 440 was quieter. I had brought along a homemade yagi that I had used on the FM sats last year; I’m not sure it helped that much. Ian, N0IMB spotted me on the SOTA site, and that led to a short flurry of contacts on 20m.

Shortly after the first contact, there was a brief hail storm with tiny pebbly hail. I covered everything in the plastic that I had brought along, but luckily the storm did not convert to rain, and weather remained cool but clear for the rest of the day.

I set up my VX-8GR hand held on the summit, and used it to post my current frequency and coordinates via APRS. I heard confirmation tones from at least three digipeaters, but I’m not sure if anyone actually used this information to find me on HF.

My first contact, W7CNL was nice enough to spot me on 20m, and later N4EX did the same on 40. I was pleased to work three members of the Vienna Wireless Society, including Kevin WB0POH, who was operating the club station K4HTA at Glyndon Park. He later told me that he was trying out Tom N4ZPT’s new KX3. The signal was paperthin and went in and out, but we managed to complete the call. Later, I had a clear QSO with Jake, N4UY who was using an attic antenna and putting out 2W on a GM20 transceiver.  Finally, I worked Ray Albers, K2HYD from his home in North Carolina on the Rockmite.

My longest distance contact was G4ELZ Jeff from the UK. The rest of the 20m contacts were west coast US, TX/OK, or Florida. The total for the day was 22 worked on 20m QRP, and four more on 40m QRPp.  Looking over the log, I worked the following states: NJ, OH, NC, PA, NY, AL, OK, TX, FL, MI, MD, VA, OR and ID. Florida was disproportionately represented in the log because I worked a few FQP stations. I also worked a number of QRPTTF stations, plus one summit-to-summit contact with AA5CK on W5/QA-008 in Oklahoma.

I was glad to get the rockmite out for some exercise. I’ve now worked about 30 station with it, corresponding to six states. It was a rough ride with the rockmite due to lack of selectivity, and I appreciate the work of the other stations in pullings its signal out.

I stopped working on 40m when the clouds grew dark, and on my way through the parking lot back to the car, the storm broke. I avoided getting drenched by about ten minutes.

Signal Mountain Activated

some rocks
The peak of signal mountain. Photo taken from our operating position, looking north.

Our visit to Signal Mountain, Virginia was successful, and summit W4/SH-049 has been activated for the first time (and perhaps the only time for the forseeable future).  We made a total of 19 QSOs, which we thought was reasonable for our first  SOTA activiation (and not really knowing what we were doing).

On the morning of April 14, 2012, I met up with Ian N0IMB and we drove out to the site. A Google Map query for “Signal Mountain, Virginia” puts an arrow right on the summit, and there is a road all the way to the top. That road is silky smooth, but the residential road that leads to it is a couple miles of gravel and dust.  We drove in and parked about just after the sharp bend in the road. According to the terrain feature on Google Maps, this put us a couple hundred feet from the summit.

I unpacked Dolly, who in this case was not a cloned sheep, but an old furniture dolly that I have used since college every time I change dwellings. Most of the equipment went into a milk crate that was bungeed to Dolly. Given the road access, we didn’t pack particularly lightly — folding camp chairs, some folding TV tables to work on, and a couple bags of equipment and snacks. As peaks go, this was a pleasure cruise.

I led Dolly up the slope, pulling on her leash, and Ian lugged the rest of the equipment. The road continues past the peak to a fenced government facility, but we stopped at the peak and headed eastward up a gentle slope into the woods. When we got to the actual stony peak, Ian found a nice place to erect the buddipole tripod, and I set up the radios.

The buddy pole went up quickly, and we played with the counterpoise until we arrived at a 1:1 SWR on 20m (Ian made me take a picture of the MFJ tuner as evidence!). We tuned around on 20m and quickly came to the realization that our stated operating frequency was just wishful thinking. The band was humming from one end to the other with QSO Party activity. We tried working a few of the NM QSOP stations, but although they were thundering in, they could not hear the 5W the Yaesu 817d was putting out. CW was a bit better, but the stock filtering on the 817d was relatively wide.

We decided that before we really set up shop, it would make more sense to put the antenna on 17m and see if we couldn’t get out better without all the background chatter. The buddipole retuned quickly, and we were soon on the air. Our first contact was Mike KE5AKL from NM, which is quite fitting since he was the first station that I had worked as a chaser, the day before.

After that, we worked a succession of stations, some with callsigns that I recognized. The TenTec 1320 sitting next to me in my bag had, for instance, been modified according to instructions that I had found on the website of our third contact, Scott W5ESE. Two contacts, Bob WB4KLJ and John AF4PD, were from our local club, the Vienna Wireless Society, and must have been working us direct from 25 miles to the east.   Jonathan AK4NL was also a very close contact, being located on Bull Run Mountain. Our stateside contacts on 17m included VA, CO, ID, NM, TX and OR.

We were very glad to make contacts with England (G4OBK), Scotland (MM0USU), and Germany (DJ5AV).  We are particularly grateful to Phil G4OBK, who stayed on frequency after working us, followed us up frequency when we had QRM, and warned off a station who was about to transmit on top of us. The other station likely could not hear our puny signal, but could copy the solid transmission coming from across the pond.

Around three in the afternoon, we switched to 40m. It was a little more involved to move the buddipole to 40m, but we finally got a reasonable match.  Predictably, on daytime 40m, we worked primarily the US east coast: PA, VA, MA, NJ, and NY.

We had intended to work until about 6 pm, but stopped early, because we were informed that the access road was being closed up at 4 pm. In talking with some guys from the facility, who turned out to be communications professionals, we learned that the facility houses some sensitive radio equipment. Although our signals did not cause any sort of interference, we agreed that we would recommend that others not work this summit, even at QRP levels.

We learned a number of lessons from our first activation, and here are the ones I can remember:

  • It is okay, indeed encouraged, to self-spot. We had so-so cellular connectivity, but in the future, getting the word out will include spotting on sotawatch, qrpspots, and via twitter.
  • Less equipment is better. We did not use the G5RV or the TenTec 1320; while there is some value in being prepared and having redundant equipment, if I had to carry the extra gear up a more challenging slope, I would not have been a happy camper.
  • The WARC bands are your friends. Ian and I both like 17 meters. If I had to pick one band, that would be it.
  • We had originally not planned to work 40m in the middle of the day, but the east coast US hams were grateful to hear us, so I’d factor that in next time, and try to split operation between local and more DX stations.
  • Our pre-posted operating frequencies went right out the window. Also, we had too many of them. It probably isn’t practical to work more than a couple bands on a given activation.
  • 5W on voice is difficult, but still worth it – when we did connect wth other stations, most of the time we received fairly good reports, and on our end, the other stations were loud.
  • For CW, I’d prefer a radio with better filtering (or maybe a modded 817).


March contesting

I had a great run in the March NAQCC sprint, a two hour QRP CW sprint that encourages the use of straight keys.  I am surprised (but pleased) to see that I took the top position in the W4 division for simple wire antennas. I think this speaks to good conditions where I was operating, luck in hitting so many multipliers, and the absence of other stations that typically score very well (K4ORD and others).  I know that several of the contestors, e.g., K4BAI, were already preparing for their CQ WW WPX runs,  so that might explain the absence of some of the regulars.

Speaking of CQ WW WPX…

S line station, tuner, swr meter, paper log
Upper book: antenna tuner settings; lower book: the contest log.

With a 100W station and a couple fixed antennas in my attic, I’m not much of a threat to the CQ WW WPX establishment, but I thought I’d give it an “old school” try this time.  Instead of working the contest with my workhorse Kenwood TS-450, I fired up the Collins S-line station. With the recently acquired Heathkit SA-2040 antenna tuner and the TenTec 1225 SWR meter to keep an eye on things, I had enough flexibility to work all the bands.

I had a number of other things to do over the weekend, so I put in about four hours in the contest. I went full manual — not even computer logging, just some sheets of graph paper. I worked 136 contacts, three of which were dupes (the paper-only method leaves something to be desired in terms of real time dupe checking).

According to my log, I worked the following DXCC entitites: Aland Island (Finland), Asiatic Russia, Belarus, Belgium, Bonaire, Curacao, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada,Canary Islands, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, England, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madeira Island, Montenegro, Morocco, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, the USA, Virgin Islands, and Wales.

The rigs worked flawlessly, and the warm sound was pleasant. I did a lot of repeating, and surely my signal was not very strong compared to most, but it got the job done.

Contests 2011

It’s still barely the first week in January, so I’m going to do a little retrospective on contests entered in 2011. Some contests I just hear on the air and jump into (particularly QSO parties), others I obsessively prepare for over several months (like the Indiana QSO Party, Operation Sizzling Pork). Usually, though, I don’t think much about them when they are over.

Not included in my retrospective are some of the contests that I participated in as a member of VWS, e.g., Field Day, and the NAQP SSB and CW.

Except for some of the QRP sprints, most contests take at least a few months to turn around results, which is somewhat puzzling considering that log submission is almost universally electronic. So, here’s the run down, based  on a quick scan of outgoing emails with logs attached. Unless otherwise stated, I entered as single operator, low power, CW only:

MN QSOP 1st VA station in category
BC QSOP Hey — I was one of only 20 outside BC in the contest
CQ WW WPX RTTY No way I was going to do well in this contest, but I made some contacts at least
2011 ARRL International DX CW I gave up trying to find the results on the ARRL website
VA QSOP I worked part of this contest with the VWS club, but them went home in the evening. I ended up getting a certificate as 1st place station in Fairfax, County, Virginia. Not bad for a half day’s work.
FL QSOP I recall this one — I was on the back porch with a QRP rig and only worked a couple, but had fun.
IN QSOP Well, I’ve certainly written enough about Operation Sizzling Pork on this blog, but it was the highlight of the year for me. I had fun preparing, during the contest, and even afterwards in compiling the scores. We placed second in the category of multioperator, multistation. Our station ran low power and worked both CW and SSB.
CQ WW WPX CW I think I was camping an entered this one QRP. A bit frustrating because only one out ten heard me, but after a few hours, I had a decent number of international contacts on 5W with an improvised antenna
REF The French amateur radio league contest. I placed 20th among US operators – pas mal.
HA DX I always enjoy the Hungarian contest. I came in at #278, but I still like the way they run this contest, communicate with log submitters, post the results, etc.
RAC Canada Day The RAC contest is also a favorite, although the results are not broken down geographically.
IARU HF The International Amateur Radio Union contest was fun in that I made contact with a number of headquarters stations and added a few new countries to my list. The results have not been posted yet.
The MARAC US Country QSO Party I had just installed the rig in my car and I made exactly one SSB QSO in this contest, but one is better than none. I’d like to try this again next year, but working CW.
Maryland/DC QSOP I worked this one with the NIH Amateur Radio Club, so it wasn’t an individual effort. We ranked second as club station in Maryland.
TN QSO Party I always seem to have great propagation in TN, so I worked this one QRP. I came in as the #3 out of state QRP operator, so I was very happy.
Arkansas QSO Party Luckily, they break the scores down by state, and as not many others from Virginia entered, I was the top VA station. It’s always worth sending in a score.
WAE SSB Again, I don’t have a chance in this sort of contest, but I did finally figure out how the whole QTC thing works.
OSPOTA I heard a random call for the Ohio State Parks on the Air Contest and dialed around to catch a few more. I came in #10 for stations outside Ohio.
Arizona QSO Party I had one QRP CW contact while I was in Montreal for a conference. Results aren’t up, but looking at logs received, I can guarantee that I was the only VE2 entrant!
NY QSO Party I usually have good connections to New York during the QRP sprints, so I also worked this contest QRP. I think I did pretty well, because I recall crossing a bunch of counties off my list, but results are not yet posted.
IL QSO Party I came in 49th in this short contest
ARCI Hoot Owl I worked this contest in the dark with a 20m rockmite, a longwire antenna and some mosquito spray. I had a great time and my score was roughly in the middle of the range, largely thanks to the bonus for working portable. I’d like to do more ARCI events this year.
NAQCC Sprint Hands down my favorite sprint. I have slowly worked my way up, both in terms of operating skill and antennas. I look forward to this every month, but schedules don’t always work out.
Spartan Sprint I also enjoy the SS, and have been working on trimming the station down from a chubby to a skinny. I can now operate pretty skinny, but only on one band at a time.

QRV à Montréal

Graffitied picnic table with Tentec 1320, Winkeyer, Palm Paddles, and wiresI’m up in Montreal for a conference on rare diseases and the agenda is pretty tight. However, after meetings ended this afternoon, I scampered northwards from the hotel, up past McGill University, heading for the high ground of Mont Royal Park. The downtown is a canyon of metal buildings, but ground slopes up as you head north, away from the river.  I actually didn’t climb to the top of Mont Royal — I stopped when I found a picnic table about half way up. The top of the hill sports a bunch of antennas, and I thought it best to keep some distance from other radiators (and the giant metal crucifix at the top of the hill. I’m not sure if it radiates, but I didn’t want to go near it either).

My picnic table was already decorated by the local artisans with their initials and names, so I knew it was something of which they were proud. Conveniently, but not too surprisingly, there was a tall maple tree nearby, and the antenna went up in one throw (because no one was looking). I set up the TenTec 1320, the Hendricks SLT+ tuner, and my Swedish lead-acid battery. I should mention that this time, TSA had no problem with lead acid batteries. I guess that was last week’s policy.

I was operating as “AI4SV/VE2”, which is a quite a mouth [fist] full. The first station I worked was Ivan, IZ4DLR, who gave me a 569. He was running 200W into a 3 element beam. I informed him that his beam was performing very well both coming and going. My next contact was with Stan, N7OC, who was also running 5W in Custer, Washington. I was pretty happy with the distances — Italy and Washington within a few minute of each other. I had a few more contacts, working Virginia, South Carolina, and even one station in the Arizona QSO Party. I hope I was a multiplier for him. I’ll have to think about what station category I’d be in that contest — Single op, single transmitter, single band, cw only, qrp, portable, Candian.

A basket of friesOn the way back, I stopped by a restaurant advertising itself as a transplanted Belgian fritérie. It was nice to see a place that served different sauces with their fries, but the fries themselves were a bit overcooked, and the sauce andalouse could have been a bit spicier. Nonetheless, their beer was good, and they had hockey on a big TV, so it was still worth the trip.

Visiting with Swedish Hams

Continuing the visit to Sweden from the previous post

Saturday morning, Kjell pulled his car up to the hotel, and we took off towards the village of Dalarö. Along the way, he showed me his mobile set-up, which included a Kenwood mobile rig set up for ARPS and an associated GPS unit.  As we drove, he gave me a brief run down of the history of the area and what was going on in terms of ham radio activity.

A scan of a business card from the restaurant SaltskutanAfter about fifteen minutes, we arrived at quiet village on the water (I realize “on the water” may not be very informative when it comes to an archipelago). Kjell mentioned that this particular village is popular among the well-off who maintain summer cottages there. One of the stops on our tour of this town was the tiny sea cabin that belonged to Anders Franzen, the archeologist who discovered the 17th Century wooden ship Vasa, preserved in the brackish waters of the Baltic.  For lunch, he took me to a restaurant in the building that at one time has served as the customs house (tullhuset) for ships bring in goods. The meal was very tasty and involved a meat similar to bacon, but thicker, served over what I think was a potato pancake.

A photographic qsl card for club station sk0qoAfter eating, we continued the trip towards the club station, SK0QO. The station is located on the Gålö peninsula, which until fairly recent times was an island. The station has been there for about a year, and the club owns the building, which is on the edge of some farm land. Driving up to the station, I noticed that they had a number of dipole antennas strung up, a vertical, and I think even a discone.

A number of hams were present at the station, some on the air, and others preparing for their annual hamfest, which will occur next week. I learned that the club is among the largest in Sweden, and that they frequently take part in contests.

The club house has a main room with a central table and a corner fireplace. One rig was set up on the table for QRP voice. I could hear some morse code sounds coming from behind the door to a side room. I peeked in a found a few operators on an IC-7000. It turns out that one of the operators was Jonas, with whom I had a CW QSO the previous day. He filled out a QSL card on the spot, and handed it to me, which is about the fastest turn around time I think I will ever have for a “dx” QSL. Afterwards, Kjell snapped a photo of some of us out in front of the station.

Photo with some Swedish hams in front of the SK0QO club stationJonas explained that on the previous day, by the time our qso took place, he had been operating for a few hours, mostly in English, and was relieved to hear a Swedish call — which turned out to be me.  I was relieved to learn that he had, in fact, sent to me in Swedish and that there wasn’t something wrong with my listening skills.

Also in the photo are Olaf, who oversees the station itself, and Carin, who is working on her sea captain’s license, and was also sending morse code that day.

After a nice time chatting with the hams at the stations (all of whom spoke excellent English), Kjell took me to visit his friend Sven, an extraordinary homebrew experimenter who definitely has “the knack”.

Sven is interested in monitoring the planet’s Schuman resonance, an extremely low frequency (i.e., 7 Hz fundamental) signal, and he has gone to extreme lengths to build his own equipment to do so. It is well worth reading Kjell’s excellent article on Sven’s efforts. What is amazing is that Sven has built equipment sensitive enough to isolate these tenuous signals, and that he does it in a populated area, where radiation from power lines, heating systems, and every other domestic electrical device complicates the situation.

This was no small task, and Sven is willing to put in an extreme effort. He has, for example, entirely cut AC power to the second floor of his house, where he has built a magnetic loop antenna the size of an upright piano. The coil itself is suspended by elastic supports and the ceiling and walls are covered in anechoic material to avoid acoustic vibration of the coil. He has gone so far as to “tune” the room itself, by positioning baffles to null out the room’s intrinsic acoustic resonances. No half measures there.

a map showing the route driven earlier in the day as reported by ARPSAfter all of this, I thanked Kjell for being an amazing host and for extending such a warm welcome to a visiting ham. We agreed to set up a sked at some point, and I hope we’re able to meet on the air in the future. Later that evening, Kjell sent me a link to our APRS tracked route from earlier in the day.

I was able to get on the air again that evening from the hotel room using a longwire thrown out my 8th floor window. Even with this very suboptimal antenna arrangement, I worked two stations on 20m, one in Wales, and one in the Czech Republic. For kicks, I did try the rockmite on 40m. I didn’t get any replies, but I did at least show up on a Netherlands reverse beacon monitoring station at 8dB above noise.

On Sunday, I again hiked into the woods behind the hotel, spent about two hours on the air, and worked eight stations (in Russia, Germany, Italy, Slovenia and England). I turns out that I was lucky, as not too long afterwards, a series of solar events disturbed the ionosphere for a few days. In all, I worked 14 stations and 9 DXCC entities with my 5w 20m transceiver.



SM0/AI4SV versus the TSA

Last week, I attended the European Cancer Organisation (ECCO) conference in Stockholm. Most of the time, I was either at the conference, or at side meetings that took place between meeting sessions. My schedule was pretty tight, but I packed my QRP bag in case I had some free time.

My plans almost ended at Dulles Airport. The United Airlines baggage clerk gleefully told me that my suitcase was about 500 grams over the limit, and that it would cost an extra $200 to ship it to Europe. I reached in, took out my QRP bag, and brought the suitcase weight back under the limit.  I had hoped to pack the QRP equipment in the checked luggage rather than to carry it through security, but having travelled many times with the same equipement, I wasn’t really worried about it. That was something of a mistake.

A TSA agent adjusts his light blue vinyl examination glovesWhen my QRP bag went through TSA screening, as expected, they wanted to hand-inspect it. They pulled the sealed lead battery out and said that it couldn’t go on the plane — they were unable to get a good image on their x-ray machine. I replied that this made some sense, it was, after all, a lead battery. I suggested they rescan it, rotating it 90 degrees in one axis or the other, so that the lead plates would be parallel to the beam. I got a puzzled expression. I explained that the exact same battery had gone through security many times, including at that same airport on other international flights, and had not been a problem. I wasn’t getting anywhere, though, so finally I let the issue drop, handed the battery to the TSA agent, and said he could keep it. I suppose they must have a nice collection of confiscated electronic gear by now, so they are probably in need of some batteries as well.

On the flight over, I wracked my brains trying to think where I might find a suitable power source, with limited times between meetings. I recalled that batteries were expensive in Belgium, and assumed that the cost would be similar across the EU, related primarily to ecological concerns about battery waste — in fact, I had guessed batteries would be even more costly considering exchange rates and Sweden’s reputation as a green country. One option I considered was visiting the hotel’s business center and borrowing the battery out of a UPS for a day or two, but I’m glad to say it didn’t come to that.

Right before jet lag caught up with me on the first day, Thursday, it occurred to me that no one would know better about where to find a battery than a local ham. A quick Google search led me to the blog of SM0FOB, Kjell Bergqvist. I strongly recommend reading through his blog entries — they’re interesting, even if you’re not headed for Sweden. Anyhow, I noticed that he lived very close to the town in which I was staying, so I shot off an email and turned in for the night.

Kjell's FB QSL card printed on glossy photo paperKjell wrote back the next day and identified two stores within a five minute walk from my hotel, both of which sold a variety of lead acid batteries and chargers. Kjell also suggested that I could just borrow an already charged battery from him, but since I had donated my last battery to the TSA, I thought it better to buy a replacement, plus a smaller charger. The cost was comparable to what I would have paid in the US, so I guess the cost of batteries in Belgium may have been driven more by local taxes or that lead acid batteries are considered more ecologically sound since they are rechargeable and in the end, somewhat recyclable.

Beyond giving me helpful advice about where to buy batteries, Kjell suggested that we go out for lunch on Saturday and visit a couple local hams and their club station. The timing couldn’t have been better, since my first meeting on Saturday was late in the afternoon, so we set a time to meet.

Friday morning, I visited the conference, caught up on email, and picked up a battery. The battery was fully charged when I received it, and since I had some time before an afternoon teleconference, I took my QRP bag and went for a hike.  The hotel is just east of the Handen commuter rail (pendeltåg) station, and just across the railway tracks is a park and a lake. I took a footbridge over the tracks and then followed some trails in the park. I assume that in the winter, these trails are for cross-country skiing. I followed the trail that looked like it led to the greatest elevation, and walked more or less parallel to the lake front. Eventually, I found a nice rocky area to one side of the path, and threw an antenna into a tree.

radio, tuner, earphones on a moss-covered rockThe location was perfect: a rock to sit on and a few other rocks at just the right distance to serve as a desk. The rocks were coated with moss, and the whole area was so undisturbed that I was a bit worried that perhaps people weren’t allowed off the trails. I tried not to bruise the moss and brushed pine needles over my footprints on the way out.

Once set up, I realized that I had not packed an RCA phono cable to go from the keyer to the rig. Luckily, I had some wire leads with alligator clips in the bag. I opened up  both the keyer and the rig and made the connection directly (that’s why the keyer is open in the photo). The rig was the usual — my TenTec 1320 and a longwire antenna tuned with a Hendricks SLT+.

I spent about an hour there and worked four stations: two in Russia, and one each in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Sweden. I didn’t realize that the final station, SK0QO, was Swedish at first. I thought the SK prefix was in Eastern Europe. After a while, I realized that the station was sending to me in Swedish, though, assuming from my “SM0” prefix that I was a Swedish operator. I copied the name of the operator, Jonas, wished him a vy 73, and figured I would look it up when I got back to the hotel room.

When I got back, I did search it on, and realized that SK0QO is the same station that Kjell had mentioned in his blog, and that we would be visiting the following day. While I was at the computer, I checked the reverse beacon network, which showed that my 5w signal had made it as far as Canada.

More on that and the rest of the Swedish QRP adventure in the next entry

Chicago, Boxen, and Heil

A view out the window of the Marriott Courtyard downtown hotel. In the foreground: a tentec 1320, straight key, and Hendricks SLT+ longwire tuner
A view towards the lake

This week as the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual meeting in Chicago, and I spent five days just north of the river, at the Marriott on S. Ontario Street. When I arrived, I was quite excited to see that my 23rd floor window opened ever so slightly, meaning I could get an antenna out. For the next several days, though, I was busy around the clock, and only on the final day did I get a chance to try to operate from the hotel. As seems to be a trend with these hotel operations, it failed miserably.

The rig was the TenTec 1320, so I was looking at day time operation, but I had a slight problem – the side of the hotel was white and my antenna wire was black. I wasn’t so much worried about someone noticing my antenna from the street level, after all, 30 feet of black wire up about 200+ feet is pretty difficult to see, but I was worried about neighbors hearing something tapping at their window and then seeing the black, insulated wire dangling. One good pull, and various pieces of my station would be headed towards the pavement.

There is a Radio Shack on Michigan, just south of the river, and as Ben informed me, they are unusually competent. I walked in, asked for antenna wire, and they knew where it was!

When I got back to the room, I figured that since I was so high up, I might as well put up as long a wire as possible. I doubled the 31.5′ length recommended by the SLT+ tuner manual to make a full wave longwire. It would have been nice to have had a tape measure, but I was able to work it out in multiples of 8.5 and 11 inches, which was doable with what I had on hand. I weighted the far end down with a ring from a keychain. I ran the counterpoise wire along the floor of the hotel room, and yes, tripped over it several times.

I looked around for something to protect and insulate the wire as it passed through the window sash, and decided that one of the throw-away ASCO newspapers could be rolled into a tube, and would help get the wire a little bit away from the building.

Not far enough, though. Although I had two of the elements of the magical formula for antennas (lots of wire, high up), I think the wire’s proximity to the building killed it. I was able to tune the antenna to fully extinguish the LED on the SLT+ tuner, indicating a good match, but being near the metal structure of the building effectively shielded the antenna. I heard few cw conversations on 20m in the morning. Granted, it was a weekday, but even so, the signals were not loud. I tried calling CQ for a while, but no responses. Now that I’m back in Virginia, I’ll need to double check the radio to make sure it is transmitting correctly, but I’m pretty sure it was the antenna and not the radio.

two large cardboard boxes awaiting unpacking
Total weight: 50 kilos.

I got back late Tuesday night, and had two large boxes waiting for me when I walked in — the equipment that I had shipped out to Operation Sizzling Pork. Tymme had shipped it two days before. Score one for UPS Ground service (and Tymme’s professional-grade packing skillz).

Not really related to any of this travel, but still along the lines of amateur radio, on the way to work yesterday, I noticed that Bob Heil had produced three episodes of the “Ham Nation” podcast. I had enjoyed his interview with Leo Laporte on Triangulation a couple months ago, and I had heard in subsequent weeks that they would be working on a ham radio-specific show for the Twit network.

As much as I appreciate the effort, I can’t say that the first few shows have, pardon the expression, resonated with me. The show may need some time to find itself, but I think it needs more structure. I wonder if it wouldn’t work better to have two hosts, one of whom is not an expert and could ask the questions that might be occurring to the audience. The show also needs to figure out what audience it wants to address. The other shows on Twit presume a sophisticated audience with knowledge of the field (e.g., Security Now), but there is something of a proselytizing aspect to Ham Nation. There is a huge audience of people worldwide who are already hams, and these are the people who most likely have sought out the show (and, from a commercial aspect down the road, probably the best target audience for ham-related ads).

Two contests, one rock

A night time cartoon of a tent and camp fire

I could say that we selected Rocky Gap State Park (78.65061 W, 39.71315 N) for Memorial Day camping because I knew I would be running a rock-bound transceiver in a QRP contest, but the truth is that as usual we waited until the last minute to make camping reservations, and there weren’t many choices for state parks within a three hours drive of Washington, DC. Despite the  last minute preparations, the camping went off without a hitch (literally, since we shoved everything in the back of one car).

We left early on Saturday morning, had tents up by around noon, and I then spent some time entertaining the neighbors by throwing soda bottles with strings into the high trees. In appreciation, they turned up their country music, which was much appreciated, but not by me.

This was the CQ WW WPX CW contest weekend, so I knew there would be a ton of activity, with a good chance to be heard internationally. For that contest, I brought the TenTec 1320, and ran its ~ 5W into a longwire antenna through my Hendricks SLT+ antenna matcher. That rig only tunes 20m (~14.003 to 14.073), so I was limited to daylight plus a bit. With other camping activities going on, I periodically sampled the band to see what propagation paths were open. I was using a straight key as I don’t have my keyers on hand, but it wasn’t too bad since I wasn’t calling CQ much with such a peashooter station. Logging was performed in the classic style: paper and pen, with a lot of page flipping to avoid dupes.

The late afternoon/early evening both days was my best time. I logged 31 contacts, with DX to Aruba, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Martinique, Spain, and Venezuela.

The CQ contest was over at 20:00 local time on Sunday, just in time for the ARCI Hoot Owl Sprint to begin. I had brought the 40m rockmite for this contest, since the contest offers bonuses both for QRPp operation and field operation. With the large membership of the ARCI potentially listening, I thought I might have a chance to be heard by someone.

I started at 20:00 EDT (00:00 Z) and stayed at it for 3 and a half hours, before I decided to walk down to the lake and stare at the clear night sky for a while. The rockmite has a built-in picokeyer, so I was able to use my Bencher BY-1 paddles, which was a good thing since I was somewhat zombified that late in the evening after a good night’s sleep on hard ground the night before.

A giant mosquito attacks a running man
Rumors may have exaggerated somewhat

Not only did I log some radio contacts, but I also was visited by many species of insects, who were attracted to the coleman lantern providing light for the log book. In fact, one unlucky bug is a permanent addition to the logbook itself.

In all, I logged nine contacts in six states (MI, NC, NJ, NY, OH, and VA). Five of these contacts were with ARCI members, who gave their member number in exchange, the rest sent me their power, some QRP, some not. I assume for the purposes of the contest in terms of my score, my power matters, but not theirs. Because I was operating on the rockmite at 500 mW output, my score got a 10x multiplier. Even more helpful, I got an additional 5000 points for operating portable (a bonus ~3x bigger than my score itself).

Operating with the Rockmite takes some patience, as the bandpass is large enough to hear many simultaneous conversations. When stations reply, it can be hard to tell if they are zero beat or not, particularly if they send just their call rather than “ai4sv de mycall mycall”.  Infrequently, I also had a touch of broadcast band interference, which faded in and out, and was always too tenuous to pick out specific spoken words.

Rocky Gap State Park was not chosen based on its potential as a contest location, but it worked well as one. The park elevation is about 1200 feet, and we were in site 182, which is at the far end of one loop, at the top of a hill, and surrounded by woods. Our site did not have electrical feeds, which further reduced the noise.  The entire site is in a valley, however, with taller hills to the east and west, so some low angle radiation may not have passed.

I would certainly consider Rocky Gap again for family camping, but I have my eye on some sites that are both closer and more elevated, for instance in West Viriginia, Black Water Falls (elevation 2897 feet) or Pipestem Resort (elevation 2690 feet, plus it has the word “Resort” in the name).