Tuesday, January 6, 2009

You're Not in Kansas Anymore

When I first got started in Amateur Radio back in 1993 it was quite the learning experience. Without an experienced Elmer for guidance I had to figure it all out on my own. The ARRL Handbook and the occasional magazine was the source of most of my information. Unfortunately, it took years to figure out that a lot of that content didn't really apply to my situation. Why doesn't my dipole work? How come I can't hear anyone on 80m? I didn't understand why many of the situations and ideas wouldn't work for me. With 20-20 hindsight I now understand what the main differences are. Here's what makes Amateur Radio from up here a whole different ball game than from "down South":

1. There's No One Else Out There

Draw a 500 mile radius circle from your location and take a guess how many active hams there are within that circle. On HF? On VHF? 6m? More than 1000? Maybe more than 10,000? Short-hop skip is the bread-and-butter of ham radio. You can load up the rain gutter on the house as an antenna and make LOTS of contacts. QRP can be fun! Every night on 40m and 80m there are hundreds of 20-over-S9 signals. It's easy! From here my circle is pretty barren. There's a few KL7's and a couple of VE8's and VY1's. That's all. And the next 500 miles after that are almost the same. I coined the phrase "It's All DX From Here" because it's true. Almost everyone I work is long-haul, double-hop skip. And that's hard to do from here because:

2. We're Right in the Middle of the Aurora Zone

You know those days when you can't work over the pole because the K-index is up? For us that bright orange auroral band around the North Pole is right overhead. ALL THE TIME! When the K is high we hear nothing on the radio. That's right, NOTHING! No shortwave broadcast stations, no WWV, zippo. And the K is high a lot. When it's not high things change from impossible to just difficult. Signals are still attenuated like crazy. It's a lot like using a VHF handheld inside a big building. When I first started it didn't take me long to figure out that if I could see the Northern Lights outside I wasn't going to be able to hear much on the radio. To make matters worse, for some reason (likely to do with wave angles) it seems to attenuate my transmitted signal much more than it affects received signals. This contributes to:

3. Diode Propagation

It's the November Sweepstakes contest. Everyone is looking for the elusive Northern Territories (it's NOT Yukon!) multiplier for the Clean Sweep award. I'm on 20m listening to two ops discussing the contest and lamenting that there's no VE8's on to give them the Sweep. And I'm calling them over and over and over but they don't hear a thing. Diode propagation is one of the more frustrating aspects of operating from up here. It's caused by three main factors. First and foremost is the auroral absorbtion. The second is the lack of noise. The noise floor here is extremely low. Very little man-made or natural noise is propagated here mainly because of (1) and (2) above. The end result is we can hear VERY weak signals. I've made many, many contacts where a true signal report would be five and zero. In most cases "down South" the noise floor is much higher so they just can't hear me over the noise. The third factor is directional antennas. Yagi's, four-square arrays, beverages, all work wonders to improve signal-to-noise in a particular direction. Unfortunately, "Northwest" is not a direction that people usually listen to. I can't count how many times I've struggled to make a contact and finally the guy at the other end says "Let me turn the beam" and SHAZAAM! He's 10 over S9. And when guys ARE pointing up here they don't want to talk to me. They're working Asian DX or West coast to Europe.

So what's the answer? Just accepting it for what it is helps a lot. Being diversified is also a good solution. Nothing on HF? Work satellites! Try different modes. CW is a good one. The Coast Guard radio station here is the last one in Canada that still operates CW because many times it is the only mode that can get through. My CW skills are sorely lacking but it is something I'm working on. One solution I've found is to operate during contests when there's lots of activity. The best answer, though, is to adopt a "Go Big or Go Home" philosophy. High-gain, low angle antennas and lots of power help a lot. QRP is NOT an option.

Note: The above piece was written at the bottom of the solar cycle based on experiences at the bottom of the previous cycle. I missed the last solar maximum and I'm looking forward to seeing what its like.


Steve said...

Hi John,

would you mind if I reprinted this in our club newsletter!? May bring you a few more folk pointing their antennas north!

Anonymous said...

Read the 'required reading' just after we made contact on 15M JT65. I had to laugh at the comment about a rain gutter downspout antenna because that's exactly what I was using for our QSO. I live in an apartment. No antennas allowed so I load up the downspout. Works fine 40-10M. Don't tell the manager. hi hi