Saturday, January 5, 2019

10 Years On

It seems hard to believe but its been 10 years since I first started my little blog here.  So much has changed over the years.  Ham radio still has its exciting moments but I don't seem to feel the same urge to prattle on about things as I used to.  Whenever something new and unusual happens I do try to write something about it but the past few years have mostly been just working DX and incremental improvements to the station.  What strikes me most looking back is how my interests have evolved along with my station improvements and, mostly, the progress of the 11-year solar cycle.

Beginning back at the last solar minimum it was so difficult to make contacts here.  I just couldn't understand how a single station could make thousands of contacts during a weekend radio contest when we struggled up here just to get a hundred into the log.  Boy, that sure changed as the cycle ramped up and we finally started to have some decent propagation.  I nearly lost my mind the first time operating in a contest where the signals never got snuffed out by the aurora: (ARRL DX - Life is Like a Box of Chocolates...)  Only a few years later as the cycle peaked I was setting records and hanging contest award plaques on my wall.  Unfortunately, after the highs of the solar maximum I seem to have completely lost interest in radio contesting.  Going back to the huge disparity between the conditions up here and "down south" after seeing what I was able to do on a more-or-less level playing field kind of saps one's enthusiasm for that sort of activity.

Some things just got left behind as the cycle ramped up.  I really enjoyed working amateur radio satellites and had hoped to one day build an EME-capable station.  One of my all-time most popular blog posts is the story of the capture here of telemetry from a wayward NASA satellite: (NanoSail-D: Sailing the New Sea)  As HF conditions improved, however, I spent most of my time building out that part of the station and the VHF/UHF stuff was put aside for another day.

Other things were left behind for different reasons.  Several extremely rare IOTA island groups were nearby and I invested a huge amount of time and treasure in "activating" them.  The culmination of my efforts was a 5-day stay on Greens Island in the NA-182 group: (CK8G - The Perfect Storm)  I made almost 5000 contacts from there in April 2010 but after that the novelty started to fade.  The next year VE8GER and I traveled to Tent Island in the NA-193 group.  Propagation was lousy and we ended up getting chased home by some unexpected bad weather: (XK1T - Snake Eyes)  It made for good stories but I haven't really had the urge to go back to any of these places yet and, thanks to my efforts, they are no longer considered that rare.

I had always been a bit of a DXer but once conditions had improved I realized that if I paid attention to what countries were active I could generally work anything that was on the air.  Between the countries I had worked as a beginner back in the nineties and the new ones that came along regularly, I did a pretty good job of getting everything in the log that was available, at least on one band or mode: (The Verdict is In)  By the time we slid into the current solar minimum I was needing only a couple of dozen more to have "worked them all".  The new ones keep trickling in and I try to make sure I don't miss any.  I still need a few that have been around sporadically (like SV/A and VK0M) but sooner or later I'm sure they'll find their way into the log.

The biggest shocker of all was the low bands.  When solar minimum conditions returned in 2017 I knew that was time to concentrate on trying to work new ones on 80m.  I thought that maybe if I focused my attention it might be possible to work 100 countries there and be eligible for the 5-Band DXCC award before I passed on.  I figured I might have four years now and at least four years at the bottom of the next cycle.  After that I wasn't so sure but if I worked at it then maybe it would happen.  What I didn't count on was how the new FT8 digital mode would take the ham radio community by storm.  Released in mid-2017 it allowed contacts to made under very marginal propagation conditions.  The instant popularity combined with being able to "see" all the stations that were active meant that instead of taking a lifetime it only took me 13 months to work those last 70 countries I needed to earn DXCC on 80m.  Now I think that DXCC is possible from up here even on 160m (and I'm well on my way already!)

I intend to keep writing here, perhaps not as often as I used to, but certainly whenever something noteworthy happens.  I don't know how many people out there actually read what I write but I love being able to go back myself and take a little walk down memory lane once in a while.  Maybe someday I'll turn it all into a book.

John VE8EV

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

DX Year in Review

Well, another year gone by.  Surprisingly, even starting 2018 with 316 current countries already confirmed it turned out to be a pretty exciting year for DX, even at this part of the cycle.

My first surprise was a "pop-up" dxpedition to Somalia in January.  Ken LA7GIA and Adrian KO8SCA traveled there in conjunction with Medecins sans Frontiers for a week long stay.  Conditions up here were especially bad and I was thrilled to make a single contact on 40m CW as I don't recall hearing them on any other band.

The next surprise was from Newington.  The ARRL unexpectedly announced that (finally!) the Republic of Kosovo would be added to the DXCC list effective January 21, 2018.  A massive dxpedition was quickly organized and went on the air as Z60A within days of the announcement.  Conditions here were abysmal and I only had a few days to try and work them before I set off for Hamcation in Florida.  I managed to pull a single CW QSO through the aurora on 30m right before we headed off on our trip.  The op at the other end busted my call (always the same story,  they hear VE8 but then they think that can't be right and change it to something more common like VE7 or, in this case, KE8) but that was easily fixed after the fact with a quick note to the leaders.

Without a doubt, the most anticipated dxpedition of the year was 3Y0Z, the huge operation scheduled to operate from Bouvet Island.  Now, when I say "scheduled" maybe that overstates things.  Perhaps "forecast" would be a better word.  The "forecast" given before the operation had always been "January 2018".  Around November 2017 I had realized that my winter holiday to Florida might conflict with the 3Y0Z operation so I rescheduled our departure from late January to early February just to be safe.  Time stood still in January leading up to our respective trips.  In mid-January the dxpedition team arrived in Punta Arenas, Chile.  We waited.  Days went by.  Finally, a week later, they set sail for Bouvet Island.  Its a two-week journey and I knew that was only going to leave me a small window to get in their log before I had to head out myself.  I got psyched up.  I've made it into the log on the first day with several other dxpeditions before.  I'll stay up all night if I have to.  I can do this!  The days dragged on as the ship steamed across the South Atlantic.  Finally, only six days before I had to leave, the team dropped anchor off Bouvet Island.  I know they'll need at least a couple of days to get set up and on the air.  Things are looking up but then the weather tanks.  High winds and rough seas.  Fog.  The days tick by.  Two days before my trip the awful truth dawns: I'm going to miss Bouvet!  There's no way now that they can possibly get ashore and get set up before I have to leave on my vacation.  I felt sick.  When would I ever have another chance at Bouvet?  I'll never forget that Saturday afternoon.  I was sitting at a local pub, glumly nursing an ale, when I heard the breaking DX news: BOUVET CANCELLED!  The ship had developed engine troubles and the captain decided it was unsafe to continue so they left.  Everyone was shocked and heartbroken!  Well, almost everyone was heartbroken.  I tried my best to look sad...

When summer comes to the Arctic I'll often go for weeks at a time without ever turning on my radio.  The summers here are fleeting and I usually concentrate on outdoor activities.  This summer, though, I had put a reminder in my calendar for the end of June to have a listen for the Baker Island expedition.  Not the best time for that kind of operation but that is the only time the authorities would permit them on the island.  OK, well, the mid-Pacific is a chip shot from here and even though our sun never sets at that time of year I figured I could probably even get them on 80m if I got up in the middle of the "night".  I made it into their log on the first day and the next day I turned on the radio to see if I could pick up a few extra bands and modes.  For the better part of the past year I had also been trying to work the lone ham radio operator in Libya, Abubaker 5A1AL.  He was quite active but not often on 20m which was pretty much the only possible band to work a low-powered station with wire antennas on the other side of the world from here.  Since I was in the shack I almost automatically took a look to see whether he happened to be on the air.  At that particular moment he was on 20m FT8!  I swung the antenna around and switched to 20m and there he was!  Not strong, only -16dB but for the first time ever he was "audible" here.  I fired up the amp, switched it to "Trans-Polar Mode" (ie; full power) and 5A1AL answered me on my first call.  A little while later I noticed that the Rx window in WSJT-X also still had my QSO with Baker Island right above the contact with 5A1AL so I grabbed a screen shot.  I looked back in my logs and it had been years since I had worked a new DXCC entity in June and the last time I had worked more than 1 new one in June was back in 1995!  A couple of days after that I did get up in the wee hours and worked the Baker Boys on 80m CW.


The last one on my radar for 2018 was VP6D, the expedition to Ducie Island.  I still remember back in 2008 when I was playing Elmer for VE8DW.  He called me excitedly one day to tell me he had just worked Ducie Island.  I had a pretty good recollection of what was on the DXCC list and I figured it was just some IOTA station.  It wasn't until a few years later I realized that it was a new DXCC entity.  Now, 11 years later, I finally had another chance.  I wasn't at all concerned about this one.  No matter how bad the propagation was I was sure it would work out ok.  Ducie is straight south of us and October is about the best month there is.  Sure enough, I worked them on every mode and every band from 160m-17m.  I even tried them a couple of times on 15m but without a proper antenna up for that band they never heard me though the big pileups.

80m was very good to me again this year.  On November 22nd I worked my 100th country on that band.  Instead of a lifetime, I worked the last 70 I needed in only 13 months, mostly thanks to FT8 but the total does include about thirty in CW and a dozen SSB contacts.  I've got them all confirmed now too but waiting for just one more on LoTW so I don't have to deal with any paper cards to apply for my 5-Band DXCC award.  I've also started dabbling in 160m and picked up a bunch of new ones there also but I don't expect to put nearly as much effort into that band as I did for 80m.

With Ducie in the log I've now started the countdown: only 10 more to go until DXCC Honor Roll.  I really have no idea how long that is going to take.  So far there are only one or two on the horizon for 2019 but time will tell!

73 and good DX
John VE8EV

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Haunting 80

Solar activity varies over an 11-year cycle and that makes a huge difference on the HF radio bands, especially from up here under the auroral oval.  During the years of high solar flux levels the upper HF bands will regularly allow for global contacts but frequent solar flares and other disturbances will often cause complete radio blackouts that can last for days at this latitude.  At the other extreme, during the solar minimum, the sun is quiet.  There is little to hear on the higher bands but when the auroral absorption decreases some surprising contacts can be made from here on the lower HF bands.

One of the best things about this hobby is that there are 100 different aspects of it that can grab your interest.  I've blogged about some of the different stuff I've been into over the years but most things related to the HF radio part of this hobby have better times than others to experiment.  During the last rise to the top of the solar cycle I had a keen interest in contesting and DXing.  I set numerous VE8 contest records and worked plenty of DX on the upper bands.  Now that we're at the bottom of the cycle, one of the things I was planning to do was to put aside HF for a while and re-build my VHF/UHF station.  I was looking forward to setting up for amateur radio satellites again and even trying some Earth-Moon-Earth and troposcatter communications.  Then I decided to put it all on hold for a while.

Around this time last year I wrote about how I was working the 80m band with my upgraded antennas and the new FT8 digital mode.  After confirming only 35 countries on 80m over the first 24 years of my ham radio career, I realized then that I probably could work 100 countries on that band in my lifetime and qualify for the 5-Band DXCC award.  What I didn't know was that it was not only possible but I'll likely get there sooner than I ever would have thought.  80m is primarily a night-time propagation mode and we get a lot of that up here.  In the winter I spend an hour or so on the radio in the morning before work and a couple of hours in the evening as well.  Before I knew it, by spring time this year I had doubled my 80m country count to 70!  So far this past month I've already added 14 more and we're not even into the November-December-January "80m prime time" yet.  I'm 16 countries away from something I thought would take a lifetime and well on track to become one of the northernmost stations to ever make 5-band DXCC.

Every new one is thrill and the more DX I work the more I start to understand the low-band propagation up here.  First and foremost is the aurora.  If the K-index is 2 or more then forget about it, there's no DX to be had and often no signals to be heard at all.  Fortunately, at this part of the cycle a high K-index is usually caused by "holes" in the sun's corona.  Since the sun rotates on a 27-day cycle these come around on a predicable schedule.  After a coronal hole rotates out of view on the solar disk conditions will begin improve.  Every day the A-index (a daily average of the geomagnetic activity) will drop and after a few days 80m will come alive again.  Once the aurora is dealt with then there are daily variations to watch for.  For example, at this time our sunset coincides with midnight in the Caribbean and propagation from there peaks for an hour or so.  Since this is around early evening here I will often have the radio on while I'm preparing dinner. When the nice JT-Alert lady announces "New DXCC" I go in, turn on the amplifier, and (hopefully) work a new one.  Another regular enhancement is to the far East at our sunrise.  Last weekend I knew that the VK9XG expedition to Christmas Island was on 80m FT8.  I waited patiently and, sure enough, a few minutes before sunrise they popped up out of the noise and I made the contact.  Even better still, we get an opening  (when the A-index is low of course) over the pole to Europe at their sunset.  Being so close to our midnight hour I generally have a hard time staying up that late but every day now the sun sets earlier in Europe and in a month it won't be so late here.  There's still a lot of countries over there that I have yet to hear on 80m!

The station continues to perform very well on the low bands.  I re-oriented the half-sloper coming off my 80-foot tower to improve my signal to the North and that seems to have made a big difference to Europe compared to last season.  I also took down the pennant receiving antenna that I put up last fall as it was much noisier than using my yagi for receiving.  With the addition of a good preamp, the 17/20/40m yagi works well as an 80m receive antenna and it can be rotated as necessary to minimize any local noise.  The TMR1090 amplifier is still working great although I often wish it was "instant on".  It takes about 30 seconds to initialize and come on line but as soon as it does it will push a kilowatt on FT8 all day long.  I've also been working on getting a small phased vertical receiving system put up that I hope will do better at signals that are arriving vertically polarized (I'll report back when I get that up and running).

The sun is very quiet these days and about two weeks out of every four currently have an A-index low enough for 80m DXing.  The next few months should have the best low-band conditions since the last solar minimum.

DX is!

Thursday, January 4, 2018

DX Year in Review

Every year I like to write a little post about the previous year's DXing.  It's taken me a while to get around to writing this because, frankly, 2017 was a pretty slow year for DX.  There were only two DXpeditions scheduled that would be new ones for me and most of my focus last year was on getting the station ready for the coming solar minimum. 

I was relieved that I didn't miss anything important during my lengthy period off-air at the beginning of the year while I worked on getting the new tower set up.  The first expedition on the schedule was in March to the central African country of Niger.  A team of operators from Spain put together a great station and the propagation cooperated for me to get them into the log on both SSB and CW.

Mauritania was one of only a handful of African countries I still needed.  Being in the Northwest corner of that continent, it wasn't especially difficult from a propagation point of view but there were only two active stations there.  One was a beginner ham who ran low power into a small antenna and his signal was never audible up here.  The other was a somewhat cranky old-timer who only worked CW, only with a hand key, and made it very clear that he was not interested in exchanging quick "5NN" reports with anyone.  He wanted a full conversation with names, locations, and signal reports.  Given the generally poor signals and my rudimentary CW skills this was a pretty tall order for me.  Fortunately, I read that in April he and a visiting ham from Brazil would be participating in an obscure CW contest and the PY would also be operating SSB outside of the contest.  I never managed to catch their signals on SSB but on the scheduled day I looked up the exchange for the contest, pointed the big antenna over the pole, and worked him in CW for the ATNO.  As a sad footnote, the OT became a "silent key" just a few weeks after our contact.

The other scheduled expedition of the year was to Burundi in November when a group of guys from Italy activated this tiny, land-locked country in southern Africa.  Burundi was kind of a "do-over" for me.  I had confirmed and received DXCC credit for a couple of contacts with F5FHI during his travels to Burundi back in the 90's.  Unfortunately, sometime around the turn of the century, there was a problem realized with his documentation and the DXCC credit was withdrawn for everyone who had worked him.  Now, 20+ years later, I finally had another opportunity to get Burundi into the log.  When the expedition started conditions were lousy.  The SSN was sitting at zero and strong solar winds from recurrent corona holes were whipping up the aurora.  This wasn't the first time I had encountered lousy conditions during an expedition.  I knew the drill: pay attention and be listening during the predicted openings on the right bands and eventually it will come together and they'll go into the log.  Many times before I had managed to squeak out a single contact with an expedition during difficult conditions.  Not this time.  Despite all my best efforts (and the Italian's too, I suppose) their signals were never heard here strong enough to work.  It was truly a shock and disappointment to miss them and it was the first time in many years that I had set my sights on working a DXpedition and come up empty handed.  The radio propagation in the Arctic can be a cruel mistress and when the signals here get so weak at the bottom of the cycle sometimes some places are just not workable.

Despite the crushing Burundi miss in November, there was something else going on in my little DX world that soon returned a smile to my face.  For many years I had thought that getting my "5-Band DXCC" award (working 100 countries each on the 10,15,20,40, and 80 meter bands) just might be possible in my lifetime.  During the peak solar cycle years around 2013/2014 I had made sure to top up my 10m country count whenever I could so all that remained was to work 100 countries at the other extreme, 80m.  That, however, was a very tall order.  Between the high absorption up here on the lower bands and my modest efforts and antennas, I was usually only able to get one or two new ones a year on that band.  My calculations suggested that at that rate I would likely become a "silent key" myself before ever crossing that magical 100 country threshold.  This year I came to realize that things have changed.  The new digital FT8 radio mode (and all the activity it is generating) combined with my new low-band antenna setup has allowed a steady trickle of new countries on 80m to slowly start filling my log book.  I began 2017 with only 35 countries confirmed on 80m from my 20-plus years of being on the air.  By the end of December I was up to 50 confirmed and they just keep on coming.  With a bit of luck I hope to make it to 100 over the next few years before the solar cycle starts ramping up again in the early twenties.  Time will tell...

2018 should be a great year.  Some big ticket Dxpeditions are scheduled to a couple of top-10 most wanted entities (Bouvet and Baker Island), hopefully a few smaller operations will come up to some of the two dozen left until I've "worked 'em all", and the continued drip-drip of new ones on 80m. Bring on the solar minimum, I'm ready!


Monday, November 6, 2017

SS CW VE8EV SO Unlimited HP

ARRL Sweepstakes Contest, CW

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

Class: SO Unlimited HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 6

 Band  QSOs
   80:    1
   40:   41
   20:   98
Total:  140  Sections = 58  Total Score = 16,240



Was kind of looking forward to this one as conditions were supposed to be good and the station is in top form (although at the moment I have no antennas up for 10/15m).  Things went off the rails right at the bell as, despite my careful configuring and testing, N1MM started doing weird things.  After a dozen QSOs I had to QRT for a few minutes and find that proverbial "obscure checkbox" that was messing things up.  Things were ok after that but there just didn't seem to be as much demand for NT as I thought there would be.  I couldn't get anything going on 40 even with the "new" 40m yagi finally up after all these years.  S&Pd through the band a couple of times and called it quits shortly after 0400z.  Never found the motivation to get back on Sunday.  Full 24-hour BIC effort guaranteed for Phone in a couple of weeks!

John VE8EV

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Get Busy Living

I try to eat healthy foods and get plenty of exercise. I quit smoking years ago and drink in moderation. I follow news on longevity and try to stay out of the sun. The reason is simple: I want to get my 5-Band DXCC award before I die. At the rate I have been going, to work 100 countries on the 80-meter band from this far North, I will need to live to the ripe old age of 122 years.

Aside from the usual issues everyone has with the lower bands (room for large antennas, noise, etc.) I have a few things that make working 80m from up here particularly difficult. The first is the aurora, or more specifically, the absorption caused by geomagnetic activity.

Since the auroral oval is directly overhead it absorbs signals in all directions!

It takes at least two days with little or no geomagnetic activity before the absorption decreases enough to make DX on 80m possible. That limits the opportunities to only once or twice a month during the bottom half of the solar cycle. The second issue is the ground. At this latitude, the ground is permanently frozen. Only the top few feet thaws in the summer. It also doesn't get dark here during the summer so most of our nightime 80m operating is during the winter months when the ground is completely frozen and blanketed with snow. This makes for very high ground resistance and lousy fresnel zone reflectivity. Antenna ground radials will help with the near-field ground losses but there is nothing you can do about the far-field losses except try to operate when they are minimized by the ground being wet. The only time that coincides with darkness here is in the late fall right before the surface freezes again. The third problem is lack of 80m activity. It takes a decent station, usually working CW, to be able to push through the absorption and it seems the only time the "big guns" get on 80m is during contests. Having long since worked their fill of 80m, the old-timers seem to spend most of their nights obsessing over the 160-meter "top-band". On the other hand, DXPeditions will be active on 80m, just not very often at times that are convenient for a station like mine that, in addition to being quite far North, is also significantly far West (almost on the border with KL7).

So, DX can be worked on 80m from here, but for the most part only during a contest or DXpedition that happens to occur in the late fall, at the bottom half of the solar cycle, during exceptionally quiet geomagnetic conditions. With only 35 countries confirmed so far on 80m, picking up one or maybe two new ones every year will take me a very, very long time to earn 5-Band DXCC...

There are, however, a couple of things that might allow me to possibly eat a hamburger and skip a workout once in a while. My 80m half-sloper antenna on the new tower seems to work OK. I've been trying hard to reduce common-mode noise and the investment in ferrite is starting to pay off. A planned pennant receiving antenna will also help but the biggest cause for optimism is the new FT8 digital mode. Introduced a few months ago as a much faster version of JT65, this new digital mode has taken the HF bands by storm. Every band has a segment with FT8 activity and more and more stations are joining the fun every day. This past weekend was one of those rare "sweet spots" for Arctic low-band propagation. Very little geomagnetic activity for several days in a row, darkness during "prime-time" operating hours, soaking wet not-quite-frozen ground, and lots of activity on 80-meters. Friday night saw good 80m conditions and in addition to working VK, JA, and LA on FT8 I also picked up the RI1F expedition on several bands, including 80m. I have Franz Josef Land worked and confirmed on several bands from many years ago but never thought to get a QSL for 80m.  Conditions were even better on Saturday night. I was thrilled to work F5UKW on FT8 for a new one (and a new zone for him!). Once I made it over the pole the FT8 window had my full and undivided attention. With France coming through I knew that probably every one of the 65 more countries I needed were within range. What happened next, though, was not even within the realm of what I thought possible. Not too long after working F5UKW, I saw a KL7 station calling ZS1A. I laughed out loud and said "good luck, buddy!". Most of the active KL7 stations are a thousand miles south of me and I will often hear them calling stations that I can't hear. It looked like he didn't get an answer from the South African station and a few minutes later I saw a QSO sequence on the screen with someone else working ZS1A. That's when I did a double-take because the callsign on the right hand side of the sequence was ZS1A. In other words, I wasn't hearing someone else working him, I was receiving his signal directly! Not strong, only -22dB SNR on the display, but the next sequence came through as well. I switched the amplifier to full afterburner and as soon as he finished his QSO I double-clicked on his callsign. I was wide-eyed when I first started receiving his transmissions but nearly fell out of my chair when he answered my call! We completed the QSO and I sat back to ponder what that meant. Looking at my grey-line display I could see it was sunrise at his QTH near the West coast of South Africa. I've worked Argentina on 80m before and recently I've been working Australia more-or-less regularly. The addition of South Africa means that when conditions are right I must be able to work pretty much anywhere in the world on 80-meters. That might seem like a no-brainer to some but from up here it never seemed possible before. The farthest I had ever been able to reach over the top on 80m was Azores and Cape Verde which are both paths that skirt quite far to the south of the pole. 

With the addition of H40GC last week that makes FOUR new ones on 80m. At this rate, maybe I won't have to save quite so much for retirement now...