Sunday, March 5, 2017


Call: VE8EV
Operator(s): VE8EV
Station: VE8EV

Class: SO Unlimited HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 19

Band QSOs Mults
160:   1 1
80:    2 2
40:  56 28
20:  90 32
15:    2 2
Total: 151 65 Total Score = 29,445


If you think conditions were bad where YOU were, you should try it from up here. It was awful! After raging for most of the week, the aurora died out a bit Friday evening for the start of the contest but returned a few hours later and shut all the bands up tight. 20m was wobbly all day Saturday with only the strongest stations making it through. Late Saturday night 40m opened up a bit and I worked a handful of Caribbean stations in the wee hours. I was hoping for 80m to come up too and even heard a few stateside stations but everything died out again around East coast sunrise. Sunday was just as pitiful as Saturday was. At one point I decided to do something more pleasant and turned the radio off for a few hours to file my taxes. By the time the contest ended Sunday evening the shack was also very clean and vacuumed...

John VE8EV

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Big Stick (Part 1)

Things were very different here seven years ago. In 2010, the sunspots were finally starting to return after one of the more lengthy solar minimums. Our fledgling ham radio “club” boasted a record four members and we were planning to build a big club station. That year, after a bit of an unexpected windfall, I picked up a Mosley S-33 tribander. This 3-element 17/20/40m yagi was to be one of the main antennas for the club station, along with my venerable TH6DXX but, before we could even get started, everything changed. Our club evaporated when half the members (VE8WD and VE8NE) moved away and VE8GER retired, preferring to spend most of his time out of town. I had a snazzy portable ham shack that worked fine but dragging it up to our club site to operate was also starting to get old. The time was ripe for a new plan.

In 2012 the real estate market here collapsed and I ended up moving into a house that I had been renovating for resale. It had a fairly large lot and neighbours on all sides but it did have one feature that was unusual in these parts: there were no high-voltage power lines bordering the property. All the local utilities are above ground and most everywhere there are 2400V AC lines distributing power to transformers that step it down to 120/240V for residential use. For some reason, the high tension lines stopped up the street and only the lower voltage wires were extended to feed the last three houses on the block. As a ham, this meant two things. First, the background noise would be somewhat quieter, and second, I could put up a tower or two without having to stress about proximity to high voltage wires.

My (somewhat) ambitious plans from 2012.  The receiving antennas never worked well enough to keep them up but eventually everything else got done except the tower for the S-33.

It took me a while but eventually, in 2013, I put up a 64-foot DMX tower for my TH6DXX yagi. It was all I could manage at the time. I knew that for the S-33 to perform on 40 meters it would need a much larger tower so it remained stacked on the ground while I tried to figure out how to do that on my meager budget. For a 40m yagi you need at least a 70 foot tower and, although I had found the space to run guy wires for my other tower (a TH6 is a bit much for an un-guyed DMX tower), I knew that the only way to fit in a second tower of that height would be with one that was free-standing. This posed several huge challenges.

For starters, even though the S-33 is rather small for a 40m yagi, it is still a big chunk of aluminum. It weighs 100 pounds, has a 24-foot boom, and the elements are almost 50 feet each. It was going to require a substantial tower. My first inclination was a 72-foot Titan tower from Trylon. These are the ‘standard’ heavy-duty towers around here (made in Canada) but they start at about $3000 and go up from there depending on your wind loading requirements. As might be expected, they are also very heavy which means they are difficult to move, install, and ship. For a long time I also had my eye on an aluminum tower from Universal Manufacturing in Michigan. Much lighter and with a convenient tilt-over base, these looked attractive for a while when the US and Canadian dollar were at par but as the American dollar went up and up they rapidly became prohibitively expensive.

As anyone who has ever bought a tower knows, one of the other big expenses is shipping. Even knocked down and with the sections nested together, towers are bulky and heavy and shipping them all the way up here to the edge of the world costs twice as much as shipping them anywhere else in the country. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find a way to get the shipping cost from the East (where all the towers come from) to the far North under $2000.

Then there is the issue of the foundation. Everything here is built on permafrost so a standard concrete foundation was out of the question. The constant freezing and thawing of the “active layer” would more than likely shift the concrete and we can’t have that. The simplest solution is to use steel pilings drilled into the permanently frozen subsoil. Once they’re frozen in below ground they usually don’t move and even if they do, it is vertical motion. There are several ways to ensure they don’t do that and almost everything up here is now built on “adfreeze piling” foundations despite their enormous cost. The price for suitable pipe can range between $800 to $3000 each, depending on the size and length. Add to that about $1000 per pipe for a drill rig to bore the hole, drop the pipe in, and backfill with a wet sand slurry to freeze it in place. Yikes! At one point I seriously considered buying a decrepit old bulldozer and just using that as a tower base…

Staring at a $10,000+ price tag to put the big Mosley in the air, suffice to say that it remained on the ground for a very long time. The XYL had no problem (more or less) with me putting up another tower but there was no way the money was going to come out of the family coffers. If I wanted to make it happen I was going to have to find a way to substantially lower the cost and I was going to have to raise the money “off the books”.

On to Part 2

The Big Stick (Part 2)

I wasn’t really bothered by not having the big 40m yagi up. The sun was blasting the ionosphere throughout 2013/2014/2015 as we enjoyed the “second peak” of the solar cycle. The high bands were in great shape and the DX was rolling in. I finally managed to put contest plaques on the wall here for my two favorite contests (ARRL DX and Sweepstakes), earned DXCC on 10 meters, and pushed my total number of DXCC entities confirmed past 300. However, as the sands of time through the hourglass, I knew the good times were running out. This had been my first time being active through a solar maximum but it was going to be my third minimum coming up so I knew what we were in for. I wasn’t about to do it with a 40m yagi lying on the ground beside the house. Since 2013 I had slowly been parlaying an initial nest egg by buying and selling things here and there and was one sale away from turning it into $5000. Not enough for the whole project yet but getting there.

One day in late 2015 I happened to come across an ad on Kijiji (Canada’s version of Craig’s List) from a guy in Saskatchewan selling a lightly-used 96-foot Titan tower for about a third the cost of a new one. I knew that leaving off the top two sections would be the same as Trylon’s heaviest-duty 80-foot Titan and we exchanged several emails over the course of a few months while I tried to figure out how I could get it here. It was the dead of winter and the tower was still partially assembled in pairs of sections which greatly complicated having it shipped. I was talking to several trucking companies and the seller, trying to put together a package that I could be fairly certain would get the tower here at a reasonable price without any surprises. In the end, though, I couldn’t make it happen. It was going to require a huge effort just to get it ready to ship and, owing to the 16-foot long pieces, the shipping itself was going to be well over $2000 and could even balloon higher than that if something went wrong. I was almost ready to tell the guy I had to pass but at the last minute I decided to offer him a small deposit to hang on to it for me until the new year and maybe we’d figure something out then.

Over the holidays that year I had found a buyer for my latest project (
a 6kW diesel generator) so with $5000 soon to be in the “tower fund” I took a closer look at what could be done. In my earlier dealings with the trucking companies I had remarked in frustration that for the price they were asking I could drive down there and pick it up myself. The more I thought about that the more it seemed like a better idea. We had been planning a bathroom renovation at the same time and were running into the same issues with shipping large items (a big tub and one-piece shower). If I drove down with my truck and trailer I could bring back the bathroom fixtures, a couple of new appliances, and the tower, all for the same amount as shipping the tower would cost. As an added bonus, I could bring the XYL along and we could visit our relatives in Saskatchewan to turn it into a bit of a mini-holiday. I closed the deal on the tower and told the seller I’d be down to get it at the beginning of June.

We hit the road as soon as the summer ferry service started on the river crossings just south of here. It's a 10-day round trip from here to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (via Calgary, Alberta) with the first (and last) 750km on a gravel road through the Arctic wilderness. I had spent the previous couple of weeks making sure the truck and the trailer were ready to go and, thankfully, the entire drive was uneventful. After stopping in Calgary to visit with family and arrange for all our supplies, we dropped the trailer and set off for Saskatchewan, visiting long-lost relatives on the way. I arrived in Saskatoon and picked up the tower without incident but I was sure glad I didn’t try to have it shipped. Paying people to try and dig it all out of the snow and take it apart in the winter would have been a calamity! As it was, it took an hour in the warm summer sunshine but only because someone with extensive Titan tower experience was helping (he could tell just by looking at it which sections were which and which pieces nested together) and especially due to the timely assistance of a helpful onlooker who ran and grabbed his battery-powered impact wrench which removed the remaining bolts in a flash. One of these was immediately added to my Christmas wish list!

I was sure I'd be able to fit the whole tower in the back of my pickup but I was still pretty relieved once it was all in and the tailgate was latched.
Living way North of the middle-of-nowhere means you don’t often get the opportunity to go shopping without paying a huge premium for shipping costs. Maybe, if you’re travelling by air, you have to worry about how much stuff you can fit in your suitcase. When we got back to Calgary and picked up the trailer, after all the bathroom reno materials and some new appliances were loaded, we still had plenty of room left over. We gleefully filled the remaining space with everything from sacks of flour to pails of motor oil. We even wound up with a pair of patio loungers strapped to the tower in the back of the truck! The trip home was grueling but we made it safe and sound. It took a lot of work and planning but there it was: I finally had my tower sitting in the driveway. All-up, including a substantial contribution out of my tower fund towards the fuel expenses, it had cost me only $3000. Now I just had to figure out how to get it to stand at attention…

9000 kilometers and 1800 litres of diesel later I was very happy to be home!

On to Part 3