Monday, March 30, 2009

CQ WPX - The One That Got Away

One of the very few advantages we have from our location is virtually unlimited real estate for an antenna farm. All the seeds are in place and by next fall we should have permanent towers and multiple antennas for all bands. At the moment, however, we're still doing it 'Field Day Style' and it's a HUGE amount of work to get set up for a contest. Then, even with all the antennas up, we haven't yet had decent conditions on more than one band at a time. Tearing everything down after the ARRL DX contest two weeks ago we decided that for WPX we'd pass on the multi-op, big gun station and just run from the driveway with the little tribander. A nice, casual, no-pressure operation was just what we needed. My only goal for this contest was to fill up the little multiplier window on the contest software (N3FJP) and maybe work a few new ones. By lunchtime Sunday I had both of those items checked off so I pulled the plug and walked away. But... I can't shake the feeling this would have been a great weekend to go big. Instead of closing down around 0200z like it usually does, 20m was open into the wee hours. The aurora came up a few times but for the most part the K-index was close to zero for the duration. Saturday night I accidentally clicked on a 40m cluster spot and the Europeans were booming in through the little tribander. I didn't hear anything on 15m all weekend but maybe with the big yagi up on the hill things would have been different. I think if we had set up the big station we could have finally made a 1000 Q's in a single contest.

Still, the contest was a lot of fun and best of all it was interesting. Lots of propagational quirks to add to the mental database, refined a few operating tricks, worked some new ones, and got some good feedback from other stations.

It's All About the Grayline

Sounds like a simple concept but the more I operate the more I see how it works. The best paths are always around our sunset to wherever the sun is rising. A month ago our sunset was around 6pm local time and coincided with JA sunrise. Not surprisingly, I could work JA's by the bucketful at that time. Now, our sunset is already pushing past 10pm which is sunrise in East Asia and the Middle East. Saturday night at that time I worked a couple of Khazakstan stations who both told me I was loud. I started CQing, had a few callers, got spotted on the cluster and BOOM. Instant pileup. The main reason this is really significant for us is that being on top of the world we have long sunsets for most of the year . In summer time the sun never quite sets and in mid-winter it never quite rises. You can sit there all day long and just track the gray line by who's loudest. Being at the equinox right now the sun sets pretty quick but in another month or so it will be skimming the horizon for hours at a time. I probably could have milked that opening all the way across the Urals into Eastern Europe but I had been up since 5am and...

Working Really Weak Stations is Exhausting

My guess is that the ratio of small stations (100W and wires) to big stations (yagi and amplifier) is probably about 10:1 if not more. This means that if you're getting out well you're going to have far more weak stations calling you than loud ones. Digging weak signals out of the QRN and QSB is hard work and even more so when they're DX stations that speak with an accent. Once I got spotted on the cluster I had lots of guys calling me who were barely audible. Throw in the accent, some QSB and a non-guessable contest exchange and it was hard work to complete the contacts. I didn't enjoy it at all. After half an hour of that the first time I called twice in a row with no answer I pulled the plug. I was too tired to worry about it at the time but the next day I actually felt guilty. I spend 90% of my time (or more) on the other end of that stick, shouting at guys that can barely hear me. Like the 3V8...

Spring Must be Just Around the Corner Because I can Hear Africa

March is the only month I have ever worked Africa. Maybe now that I'm running a bigger station in contests that might change but with the little tribander Africa only comes calling in March. Of all the countries I'm missing, most of them are in Africa. From here, Africa is straight over the pole and then all the way down the other side. No oceans to bounce off, just aurora, ice, and Europe. I was surprised to hear 3V8BB with a reasonable signal (the meter was twiching a bit). I had never worked Tunisia and he didn't have too many callers so I decided I was going to work him. It took about 10 minutes before he finally got a partial. Then another minute to get my full call. Then we came to the exchange. We tried about 10 or 15 times but he didn't get it. Then he gave up and called QRZ! I shouted the exchange at him a few more times but he had obviously moved on. Why didn't I just give him a ROGER ROGER when he came back with the wrong number? He'd lose the mult but I'd still get the card. Well, that wouldn't be very sportsmanlike, would it? So I hung in there for another twenty minutes and kept calling him. Finally he heard me again, recognized the call right away, and managed to catch my exchange. It was time for...

The Dance of DX

Come on, don't tell you've never done it. You're sweating it out in a pile-up for a new one. Propagation is going down hill, you know you might not get another chance. Then you get a lucky break. The DX calls again when everyone else is still shouting. You wait a second or two for the pileup to die down and you throw out your call with every decibel you can muster. You're rewarded with "Who's the Echo Victoria?" or some variation like that. Right after I got the 3V8 I was feeling cocky so I punched up the spot for the C91TX Mozambique expedition. I was hearing him pretty well and after the fourth or fifth call he came back with "Who's the Victor Echo Eight?" That's usually a show-stopper in a pile-up because right after that is always "Everyone standby, just the Victor Echo Eight station". The new one goes into the log and some obscure force of nature compels you to get out of your chair, pump your fist in the air and lead a little imaginary conga line around the shack. Note that for some reason, this only happens when you're calling them. If you're running and a rare new one calls in there is no dancing. If you're in a multi-op though, you can at least turn to one of the other guys, point at the screen and give a thumbs-up and a big grin.

Everyone Likes Positive Feedback

Another one of the very few perks of operating from up here is after a while people start to recognize your call. Every time I get on in a contest I get a few comments from other operators. Most of them are "Hope to work you in Sweepstakes!" but every now and then I get a compliment along the lines of "You guys are doing a great job up there, keep it up!". I even had OH2BH, Mr. Martii Lane himself, pause to say hello from OG8X when I called in. My favorite one all weekend though was from Bob, KQ2M, who said he really enjoyed reading the blog, keep it up. Who would have thought? The propagation on the Internet is excellent from here!

Next weekend we'll be on NA-192 Ellice Island in the Arctic Ocean as VX8X. Please drop by and say hello.

John - VE8EV


Call: VE8EV
Operator(s): VE8EV VE8DW
Station: VE8EV
Class: M/S HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 22

Band QSOs
20: 260
Total: 260 Prefixes = 209 Total Score = 136,059

Comments: Just a casual op from the shack trailer in the driveway and the little tribander at 35 feet. VE8DW dropped by and worked a few so entered as M/S.

Conditions were generally good all weekend. 20m was open late and I had a nice little run on Saturday night into Western Asia and the Middle East at their sunrise. Clicked on a 40m spot by accident and Europe was booming in but didn't have any low-band antennas set up. I would have bet money on a 15m opening but not a peep all weekend.

It probably would have been a good weekend to set up at the contest site but doing the 'Field Day' thing in the winter is starting to get old. We'll be raising the permanent antenna farm as soon as the snow is gone. As usual, the long winded write up is at

Thanks to everyone that managed to pull me out of the QRM.
73, John - VE8EV

Look for us next weekend from NA-192 Ellice Island as VX8X.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

VX8X Delayed Two Weeks

The subject line says it all. The NA-192 Ellice Island expedition will now happen the weekend of April 02-05. Our hosts on the island have extended their drilling program for another two weeks and requested that we hold off on our trip until then. In a lot of ways, this is actually good news. VE8DW has been dealing with some family issues that was putting his ability to get away this weekend in doubt. Also, the latest geomagnetic forecast is predicting unsettled high-latitude conditions this coming Saturday and Sunday. The forecast for the weekend of April 2nd is 'quiet' for all four days. Also, the weather will hopefully be that much better in a couple of weeks.

In other news, based on the predicted propagation (and requests from island hunters) we have revised the operating plan to include more 40m and 17m operating time in addition to the planned 20m activity. Expect to hear simultaneous operations on two bands during peak hours. Special attention will be given to Europe (which is the most difficult path from here) and Japan, where I have been informed that a grand total of only three stations have confirmed NA-192 to date. We're expecting to have an easy time working North and South America and the Pacific.

Any further updates will be posted here first.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Call: VE8EV
Operator(s): VE8EV, VE8DW
Station: VE8EV
Class: M/2 HP

QTH: Inuvik, NWT
Operating Time (hrs): 39


Band QSOs Mults
160: 2 2
80: 6 5
40: 60 31
20: 280 73
15: 13 7
10: 0 0
Total: 361 118 Total Score = 127,792
I thought this was another mediocre contest result from our geomagnetically-challenged part of the world but after seeing some of the west coast scores I'm starting to think our score was at least non-laughable, if not almost respectable.
Conditions on Friday and Saturday were great. Worked a bunch of Europeans overnight on 40m, had some nice little runs on 20m and we even picked up some mults on 15m. Saturday night was a lot slower as the aurora came out and I slept through most of the 40m opening to Asia.
With the K-index up Sunday was mostly a write-off except for the last half hour. For a whole 30 minutes I think I heard what 20m sounds like for you guys down south. Loud and clear with layer upon layers of audible stations and I could work anyone I wanted with only one or two calls. I raced up the band from one end to the other trying to work as many as I could before time was up. It was just amazing and made up for lots of the single-digit rate hours.

Full write-up is at

Monday, March 9, 2009

ARRL DX: You Can't Run and You Can't Hide!

Another interesting 'Field Day' style contest experience from the high arctic. We spent Wednesday and Thursday evenings before the contest getting the 40m HGEB array strung up at the contest site. This gigantic antenna consists of three 5/8 wave elements driven in series in front of three 1/2 wave reflector elements, essentially a trio of 2-element yagis side by side. It models at 13dBi in free space but we're probably lucky to be getting 6 or 7 dBi with it only up 1/4 wavelength high. I had hoped we could get it all done in one night but after slogging through the bush and waist deep snow getting the reflector half up it was too dark and we were too tired to keep going. The next night was exactly the same story hanging the driven elements. I had Friday off from work and spent the morning getting the new TH3JRS baby yagi put together and the rest of the afternoon getting the shack trailer and all the equipment up to the contest site. We had the mobile tower and the TH6DXX up just in time for Wally to get on 20m at the starting bell while I ran around finishing up the low band antennas and running feedlines.

VE8EV and VE8DW putting the TH6 together.
"Quit taking pictures and come help me!"

After a two hour 'run' of forty JA's and UA0's the amp blew up (filament to grid short in a brand new tube!) so we had to spend an hour fixing that and then another hour out in the wind, cold and dark tuning the big low band vertical. Finally got going on 40m around 0400z and over the next couple of hours I worked the two dozen Eu stations I was hearing. The 40m wire array beaming over the pole seemed to play well and most answered on the first or second call but every time I tried running I had no takers. Wally waited patiently for an Eu sunrise opening on 20m but only got a single caller. Went to 80m at 0700z and worked everyone I could hear there including KH7X who was hearing us well enough to QSY to 160m and then back up to 40m for the triple mult. After that I managed another two dozen Q's on 40m before a much needed 90 minute nap.

VE8DW running on 20m the first night.
"What the heck is a Four Bravo Two ...?"

We got off to a slow start at 1030z but after getting a pileup of Europeans going on 20m around I handed it over to Wally so he could get some more practice running. I felt like a proud father watching him work the opening with the rate meter over 100 the entire time. I poked around on 40m and 80m but didn't find anyone that wasn't already in the log. The Eu run fizzled at 1700z and we went back to S&P. The afternoon didn't produce any rates but we traded back and forth between 15m and 20m and put a bunch of Caribbean and South American mults in the log. I just barely heard KL7RA on 10m but by the time I spun the beam around to see which end he was strongest on he was gone. At least we got them on all the other bands. I was envious as I ran across them all weekend long running stateside stations like crazy. We had excellent propagation to the rest of Canada and the lower 48. So much so that it was impossible to try and run inside the US phone segment because we kept getting called by Americans. I tried to run on 15m but had to give up. Even calling "CQ DX contest, CQ DX South America" I was getting a pileup of US stations trying to call me. I couldn't figure out what to do because whether I was working them or not I doubt any DX stations would stick around in a pileup of USA stations. Even outside the phone segments I still had US stations calling. A polite "Ur out of band, OM" sent most of them on their way. For the few VE stations that called I just gave them a quick five-nine and they moved on. One US station even called me on CW for a cross-mode contact. Him I logged, you just have to admire the combination of determination and ingenuity.

Late Saturday afternoon we took an hour off to put up the baby yagi. It was originally planned to go on the tower on top of the big water tank that shadows our Eu path from the mobile tower. Unfortunately it was 33 below and the wind was howling so we opted to put it on a 12 foot step ladder on a small platform over a nearby fuel tank. It was only up about 20 feet but at least it had a clear shot to Europe and JA. As it was we froze our butts off and we were only outside for about 15 minutes at a time.

VE8EV putting up the baby yagi on Saturday afternoon.
"Boy, I'm sure glad we didn't try to put this on the big tower today!"

The late afternoon opening to Asia was almost non-existant on Saturday as the aurora was starting to come up. Wally CQ'd away on 20m but only had a trickle of JA's and UA's call in. We slogged it out until the wee hours but between 0000z and 0600z we could only manage 40 contacts, half on 20m and half on 40m. I gave up and crashed until 0800z, got up and worked a VK, a ZL and OX on forty and went back to bed for another 3 hours.

On Sunday we got up bright and early at 1200z (remembering to deal with any time change issues) and got back to work. The high latitude geomagnetic field was at active levels but the six hour forecast was calling for quiet so we hoped for the best. Amazingly, we were still able to make a few scattered contacts. Wally stayed on 20m and I waited in case 15m opened again. All morning and afternoon I checked every 15m spot to no avail while Wally poked away on 20m. By late afternoon we were getting nowhere. Propagation to the US was coming up nicely but not much DX to be heard. The K index was headed in the right direction (down) so we decided to just CQ on 20 meters and hope for the best.

Trying to run stations up here is always hard. First, the signals are weak in both directions. We're doing everything we can (within reason) at our end without resorting to 150 foot towers and stacked monobanders. The far end stations have a hard time hearing you over all the QRM and QRN. At our end it usually works out like this: First, you find a clear spot and start calling CQ. If anyone answers you they're usually weak but readable. If you're lucky, they'll spot you on packet. When that happens its an instant pileup and you run them as fast as possible. Spotted or not, you carry on until a much stronger (like S-7 or better) station fires up close to you. You're weak down there so you aren't bothering him at all and his QRM wouldn't be a problem except now you can't copy all the weak guys calling you. Since usually they're all weak, you're done. Close down and move on. It's a fundamental fact that there just aren't a lot of strong signals that are heard here during a contest. If your station is big enough to be loud up here then you'll probably already be calling CQ and working nearer stations that are loud enough to be heard over the QRM. The other thing that happens a lot is you'll be happily CQing away in a nice clear spot with few or no takers. Then all of a sudden the aurora quits, the band comes to life, and you're right between two stronger stations and sometimes a third station is already right on top of you. Its frustrating at times and for me, figuring out how to effectively run in a contest is right up there with understanding propagation.

VE8EV trying to run on 14.148
"You're out of band, old man!"

For a while I was thinking that maybe the answer was just sticktoiteveness. Just keep calling CQ and you'll work more stations than you would by search and pounce. And while this might be statistically true, like all stats it breaks down at small sample rates. If your rate is going to be 4 or 5 Q's per HOUR calling CQ vs. 3 or 4 per HOUR of S&P then all else being equal I'll have way more fun (and get way more multipliers) by spinning the dial. So the last couple of hours we decided to call CQ on 20m just outside the US phone band with the beam to the west for the rest of the contest and hope for the best. CQ CQ CQ for 20 minutes. A weak JA finally calls. CQ CQ CQ for another 10 minutes. Nothing. Turn the beam south east. CQ CQ CQ. An XE1 calls. CQ CQ CQ for 10 minutes. Then the W/VE's start calling. CQ CQ CQ for 10 minutes. A PY calls. CQ CQ CQ for 10 minutes. An EA8 calls (mult!). CQ CQ CQ. While this is going on, Wally is on 40m shouting at a few Europeans who are S-7 but can't hear him. After an hour of this and with only 20 minutes left in the contest I decide to take one last spin up the band. What I heard on 20m in the last 20 minutes of the contest was just unbelievable. The band was open to all of the Americas. Wide open. Not only that, the dynamic range was like nothing I had ever heard before. What I mean by that is usually during a contest 20m has strongish signals every 3 or 4 kHz and everything in between is a muddy, swishy sounding mix of QRM, QRN and signals that are just under the noise floor. This time I could hear thousands of stations. I bet if I had a wideband SDR radio that could record an entire band at once I would be able to go back and pick out a thousand call signs. Strong signals on top of weak signals on top of stronger signals. Huge pileups of guys working Caribbean and South American stations. W/VE's calling CQ. DX stations calling CQ. I swear I could hear every single station clear as a bell. It was amazing. And they were hearing me just as well. In just over 15 minutes I S&P'd my way up the band and worked six stations. They all had pileups of one size or another and I cracked each one in less than 3 calls. I did pass on one Caribbean mult I still needed as his pileup was absolutely enormous and way out of control but the others went into the log one after the other. As I worked my way up to the top of the band I got KP2M for a mult with 2 minutes to go. Right at the top end was XE1L and I worked him with only seconds to spare right at the bitter end. Behind me on 40m, Wally had two Europeans in the bag and on the hook with one more who was trying to fish him out of the noise but didn't quite get it before the bell rang.

Overall we had fun and that last 20 minutes on 20m made up for a lot of hours spent without logging anything. I've never listened on HF from outside of the auroral zone so I can't help but wonder if maybe that's what it always sounds like down in the real world...

Contest Summary:

Band QSO Mults
160 2 2
80 6 5
40 60 31
20 280 73
15 13 7
10 0 0
TOTAL 361 x 118 = 127792 points