Wednesday, April 29, 2009

VX8X - Cards in the mail.

QSL cards arrived from the printer yesterday and all direct requests received to date will be in the mail by the end of the week.

The link for the on-line QSL request is up and working (see previous post).


On-Line QSL Request

OQRS page is now here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

VX8X Write-up (Part I)

It's no secret that the key to a successful dxpedition is planning. The first step after you have picked a destination is to decide on what kind of operation it will be. Multi-op DX juggernaut, single-op casual, or somewhere in between. After that you just need to figure out all the details and make it work. Our plan for Ellice Island was simple. Jump in the truck with a couple of radios and an amplifier, drive the ice road up to the drilling site on the island, put up a little tribander on the roof of the camp and go at it. Office space and power to operate, comfortable beds and first-rate food would all be provided for us at the camp. Everyone calls it a 'camp' but it's really more like a 50-room motel complex with a restaurant, phones, internet access, and all the creature comforts you would expect to find anywhere.

The first hiccup in the plan came the week we were scheduled to go. We had always intended to arrive just as the drilling operation was winding down and the best estimate for that was March 20th. As it turned out, the company made a very significant natural gas discovery, the camp was full and operations were expected to continue for another couple of weeks. We rescheduled for April 2nd and waited. Geomagnetic conditions would be critical to a successful operation and the long-range forecast was for little to no auroral disturbance on those dates. Things were looking good.

Fast forward to Wednesday, April 1st. I called to make sure they were still expecting us and found out that not only were they not expecting us, they were GONE. Over the past weekend they had wrapped everything up and moved the rig, the camp, and all their equipment back to the mainland. All that was left was the ice road, a compacted snow pad the size of a soccer field and a little well-head sticking out of the ground. I was disappointed but not totally surprised. I'd worked in the oil industry before and an operation like that in the Arctic costs about a million dollars a day. The minute they finish what they came there to do is a mad scramble to get everyone and everything back to where they came from. It was time to switch to my backup plan.

The backup plan wasn't really a plan, more just a vague notion that if the camp shut down before we got out there we would have to take a generator and my portable contesting station out there. The more I thought about it, though, the less I liked the idea. My shack trailer is comfortably appointed with two operating positions, two bunks and a tiny little kitchen. It's just fine to tow up to our operating location on the edge of town but I was leery of pulling it over 100 miles of bumpy ice roads. There might be nothing left of it when we arrived!

The next blow was operators. We'd already lost Gerry, VE8GER. I hadn't even talked to him but I knew he was working out at the camp and would have been happy to spend some time on the radio. With the camp gone, so was he. That just left me and Wally, VE8DW. When I first told him of the change in plans he thought it was an April Fool's joke. After I convinced him that, no, the camp was really gone and we were going to have to rough it, he decided that making a trip like that was outside of his comfort zone. His gut was telling him that he had to pass and I didn't blame him one little bit. It's one thing to take a little afternoon cruise in the truck and sleep in a warm bed with three hot meals a day but quite another to travel out to the middle of nowhere in the Arctic Ocean and camp all alone for three days. The icing on the cake came from outer space. Based on solar activity observed by the STEREO satellites, NOAA was now predicting a chance of unsettled to active geomagnetic conditions at high latitudes. I was not at all pleased with the situation.

I stewed all afternoon on Wednesday wondering what I should do. I knew a lot of people were counting on us to activate the island. The
Island Radio Expedition Foundation had graciously agreed to cover the cost of the little triband yagi that we purchased, provided, of course, that we actually made the trip. The special callsign was all arranged and the pending operation was plastered over all the DX bulletins and IOTA web sites. If we cancelled now there would have been a lot of disappointment all around.

I certainly wasn't very keen to go up there alone. It's a pretty forbidding place. Polar bears aren't common at this time of year but they do show up from time to time. The abandoned ice road was still in good shape but it wouldn't take much wind to blow it in and you'd be stranded. Furthermore, doing any kind of work alone is dangerous. One silly little slip off a ladder or the back of the truck and you'd freeze to death before anyone even started wondering where you were.

So what to do? I started cataloguing the assets that I had available. I had my big, diesel truck which, in addition to being six-wheel drive and very dependable, also had a huge back seat that folded down into a cozy bunk. Add a foam mattress and a sleeping bag and I would at least have a warm place to sleep. I knew where I could borrow one generator and another to have as a spare. That took care of the electricity situation. Some jerry cans for gasoline and extra diesel for the truck and I knew I'd be able to stay safe and warm for twice as long as I planned to be on the island. I also had a satellite phone that I could use to call in several times a day to let everyone know I was ok. Things were starting to look a bit brighter. All I really needed now was some place to operate from and a way to raise the antenna. The answer to both items came from my former employer,
New North Networks. When I worked there we had built several portable communications trailers for use at remote sites. Each one had an 5'x5' shelter with an equipment rack, lights and electric heat and a 50-foot fold-over crank-up tower with a rotator on top for aiming a microwave dish. Since all the oil and gas activity had wrapped up for the season the trailers were all sitting in a neat little row waiting for next year. A quick phone call was all it took to secure the use of one (always stay on good terms with former employers!).

Things were falling into place now. The weather forecast was good and I decided that I'd just have to deal with the aurora if and when it happened. The only item left on my list was the problem of working alone. I wasn't worried about operating by myself but I wanted to bring someone along to be there while I was setting up. But who could I find that would want to take a day off work on short notice and drive out to the ocean and back? The light from the little bulb that came on over my head was blinding when I came up with the answer: my mother! My mom also lives in Inuvik and is the senior manager at the local housing authority but she is also an accomplished semi-professional photographer. No stranger to wilderness adventures (she spent two weeks last summer with a group of other artists at a remote camp in
Ivvavik National Park) she jumped at the chance for her and her camera to make a day trip up the ice road. In addition to the wildlife and nature pictures she would also be able to get some shots of the dxpedition setup. Sweet!

With a new plan fully realized, I pushed the departure back 24 hours and spent all day Thursday collecting equipment and supplies. I had a lengthly checklist and methodically went through it to make sure I had everything I needed. By 11pm Thursday night everything was loaded and ready to go for first thing Friday morning. My mom had to be back in town by 5pm so that meant we'd have to hit the road early. Three hours for the drive up there with the trailer and all the gear, a couple of hours to get set up and test everything, two hours back to town to drop off my mom and two hours back out to the island. It would make for a lot of driving but with any luck I'd be on the air early Friday evening. VX8X was GO!

Click here to continue...

VX8X Photos

It turned out to be a beautiful day for a drive. The sun was shining, there was very little wind and the temperature was around minus 20C. Here are the pictures from the first day:
Hitting the road ...err... ice. On blue ice about half-way to Ellice. That's Richard's Island in the background. Oh, and don't worry about the ice. At this time of year it's about 12 feet thick.
Magnificent desolation. On the ocean heading north to Ellice Island.

On arrival at the island the first order of business was getting the Ellice Island Light & Power Company operational.

On the snow pad putting the baby yagi together. Not much to see in the background. Ellice is a pretty low lying island.

Mounting the Hy-Gain TH3JRS. The manufacturing quality is abysmal (malformed swaging, missing parts, sub-standard materials) but the performance is outstanding AND you can hold it with one hand!

Up she goes, just a small pause to untangle the 40m inverted vee.
World's lonliest ham shack, Ellice Island, Northwest Territories

I fit all the equipment into three rack shelves. Upper shelf had the tablet PC and the FL-2100B amplifier, the middle shelf held the TS-2000 and wattmeter and the lower shelf had a keyboard and an antenna switch. Off to my left out of view is the spare generator with a small piece of plywood on top holding my coffee maker. That was all, if I wanted to change my mind I had to go outside first. But at least it was warm!


Shot for a future CQ Magazine cover, hi hi.

VX8X Write-up (Part II)

After all the trials and tribulations, ups and downs, and driving back and forth, by 0300z Friday night I was back on the island and ready to hit the air. I had committed to IREF to make at least 500 contacts to qualify for their generous grant and secretly I was hoping to put a 1000 in the log. Even as a multi-op station in recent contests we had never managed to make more than 600 QSO's but I knew that between the IOTA chasers and the prefix hunters I had a pretty good shot. My operating plan was pretty straightforward. Work Asia and Oceania in the evening then hit Eu sunrise and work Europe for as long as I could. If I ran out of propagation on 20m I would have to drop down to 40m and take what I could get. Grab a few hours sleep and be onto Europe again until their sunset then switch to North America until 20m opened to Asia again. Repeat as necessary. As it turned out, this was one part of the plan that never had to be revised.

I pointed the beam WNW and only had to call CQ two times before the first JA's, UA0's and UA9's started going into the log. A few minutes after that I was spotted on the cluster and we were off to the races. The VFO's were all ready to go split because I was anticipating a big pileup and I wasn't disappointed. Within ten minutes of getting on the air I was already operating split and keeping the rate at over a hundred an hour. By 0500z there were more Europeans than JA's calling so I swung the beam around straight over the pole. There were a LOT of early risers in Europe this weekend! The pileup was huge. I was already working split so I decided to try going by numbers. The pile didn't seem to be getting any smaller and the rate was starting to slip as I needed more and more fills to complete the contacts. I've worked European pileups before and I knew how to keep things moving but around 1:30am local time I decided to throw in the towel. I'd been on the go for two days straight and I knew I'd need to be in top form the next day. I fueled up the generator so it would be ready to go in the morning, warmed up the truck and crawled into my sleeping bag for a few hours of sleep.

I was up with the sun the next morning at 8am and it took almost 45 minutes to get coffee made, grab some breakfast and, most importantly, warm the shack up. At 1430z I took a spin through the bands to see how propagation was shaping up. Europe was coming through but I was still sleepy and a bit gunshy from the night before so I decided to beam North America to get warmed up. The first station I worked spotted me on the cluster and the rate took off instantly again. After only 20 minutes on Saturday morning I realized I had this thing beat. It was only the first hour of the first morning, the total QSO count was already approaching 500, and I was only getting started. Relieved that the pressure was now off, all warmed up and with the first cup of coffee starting to kick in I decided it was time fulfill my promise to give special attention to Europe. Shortly after 1500z I turned the beam back to Eu and for the next few hours I slogged it out with the Europeans. Fortunately propagation was good, and I was running split so they had no trouble hearing me.

No offense intended to anyone but pileups from different areas of the world are very different . I find pileups of Russian and Japanese stations to be very orderly. If you return a call and you get a letter or number wrong you sometimes have to coax the station into giving his call again so you can correct yourself. Everyone calls then everyone listens, just like it's supposed to work. The Europeans are a little more, uh, let's say 'free spirited'. I find the best way to run a European pileup is to be as polite and firm as you can, never reward bad behavior and keep repeating instructions over and over until everyone knows that they have to behave. As long as you can keep a decent rate going no one will get too frustrated. But its a lot of work, especially if propagation is good and there's a gadjillion stations calling.

After a couple of hours I needed a 'break' so turned the beam back to the southeast and started to pick up more W/VE stations. I stayed there all afternoon until 2130z when I hit QSO number 1000 and decided to stop for a bite to eat and tend to the Ellice Island Light and Power Company. I had already been already starting to get a few JA's calling in so I turned the antenna around to Asia and had an instant JA pileup. Unfortunately, it was still a bit early there and after an hour I started running out of callers so turned back to the south to work USA and pick up some South American and VK/ZL stations. As midnight zulu approached I was once again getting more and more JA's in off the side of the beam so it was back to the land of the rising sun to start over from where I had begun almost 24 hours ago. With the QSO count past 1500 there was no pressure at all now and the evening flew by with good rates and stations calling in from all over. After a weak ZL called in I decided to beam Oceania for a while and see if I could get some VK/ZL's or a few Pacific islands but didn't hear any. Around the same time, the other good news I came to realize was that I had plenty of fuel for the generator. I really didn't have much of an idea about how much fuel it would require and I had only brought 25 gallons. Now passing the halfway point knew I had enough to last for the duration (and then some).

The best part of the whole trip was just after sunset that night. I took some time-off to do a few housekeeping tasks (oil and fuel in the generator, warm up the truck, call home on the satphone, etc) and I paused to take stock of where I was, what I was doing, and how things were progressing. The sky was pink and purple in a typically beautiful Arctic sunset. There had been no equipment problems to date. The weather was still the same and, most importantly, I was pretty confident that unless the bands totally gave out on me, I'd be able to push past 2000 contacts before I wrapped things up the next day. I took a look through the log and it seemed to be split about 30/30/40 between Europe, Asia, and North America which sounded like a reasonable balance (the actual numbers ended up being 33/20/47). Propagation had been excellent so far. I had no idea what the flux or K-index were doing but as long as I kept putting contacts in the log I decided it didn't really matter. Life was good and I was very pleased at how everything was turning out.

Then I remembered 40 meters. There had been a bit of hew and cry for 40m during the original planning so I (somewhat reluctantly) included it in the plans. I decided to take some time to get on and see if I could work anyone. I called CQ on 7.160 for about 5 minutes with no takers so decided to try higher up the band in the US General class portion. After a while I worked a W1, a W8, a W5 and couple of VE7s. Then nothing. I thought to myself 'I gave up a pileup for this?' If I had been spotted I probably could have put a couple of hundred contacts in the log but given the way things had been going I decided that I would get back onto 20m and work Asia until European sunrise then call it a night. Propagation was great and for the next few hours I had a strong signal into Russia, Khazakstan and Ukraine as the greyline tracked across the Urals. Once the Europeans started calling in I quit for the night. I wanted to be fresh and hit Europe in the morning.

The last day dawned bright and early and first thing on the agenda was the final run of Europeans. Propagation wasn't as good as the previous night. The band was also crowded with contesters and rag chewers. I called CQ on 14.260 and found out that there was already another expedition on. I finally got a spot with enough space to work split and called QRZ? VX8X. As I had become accustomed to, an instant pileup ensued. This time though it was much, much harder to make a good rate. All weekend long I had been riding the RF gain and the attenuator to help sort out the callers but not today. The whole pileup was only registering about S-5 on the meter. Even split I was having a hard time picking out callers. Given the moderately crowdy conditions I was hesitant to start spreading the pileup out but I didn't have much choice. It was still slow going but once they were spread over 5 kHz the rate picked back up again.

Just like the previous runs, three or four hours of a huge pileup like that was all I could take. As conditions picked up late in the morning I started getting more and more W/VE's calling in off the side of the beam. Finally I decided to just turn the beam and run stateside. And run I did! I never had a big pileup but instead was blessed with a continuous flow of callers that I worked as fast as I could. For the last three hours my rate was over 150/hr as I ran stations like my hair was on fire. I even had one guy, thinking I was a contest station, give me a report of 59-001! Not only that but, despite the fact that the beam was pointed to the East coast, I was still getting lots of callers from Europe and even had several Middle East and African stations call in. I blew past 2000 contacts around lunchtime without even slowing down.

Shortly after 2pm I started thinking about how much work I had to do before I could leave. Everything had gone splendidly up to this point. The operation went better than I could have imagined so why push it? I was pretty tired and I didn't want to wait too late to tear down and then have to make the three hour drive back to town running on mental-empty. With just over 2200 QSO's in the log I decided to stop right then and there. I thanked the guys in the pileup for their patience but I had to go QRT. I turned off the radio and walked outside into the sunshine. I was surprised to see a very large silver fox nosing around the edge of the pad. He seemed completely unaware of the miracle that had just taken place in his frosty little backyard.

Final QSO tally: 2228
Breakdown is 1027 NA, 721 EU, 430 AS, 22 AF/OC/SA

Monday, April 6, 2009

VX8X a Success.

Got back from the island last night safe and sound. All went according to plan, the weather was good and propagation was excellent. Final QSO count was 2,228.

Thanks to everyone that took the time work me. I'll post a detailed write-up with more pictures tomorrow.

John - VE8EV

The lonely little shack on Ellice Island.

Friday, April 3, 2009

VX8X - On the way!

All the equipment is checked and loaded. Should be on the road by 1400z.

VE8DW cancelled at the last minute due to a stomach condition so its now a solo op. I expect to be QRV around 1800z for an hour then off until 0000z as I have to drive back into town to pick up more supplies and drop off my assistant. Spent all day Thursday running around arranging for generators, towers and fuel and carefully collecting and testing all the equipment.

Geomagnetic forecast is now iffy but will have to make the best of it. Look for me on 14.260 and 7.160 (listening up/down as necessary).

73 es Good DX!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

VX8X is GO!

Today was good news / bad news time. The bad news was that the drilling operation shut everything down and left the island yesterday. Mighty unkind of them to not to keep their multi-million dollar operation going a few more days to accomodate our expedition! The good news is that the ice road is still in good condition and I've had a back-up plan all along just in case this happened. So instead of operating in the lavish comfort of the drilling camp we're going to have to rough it and bring along our own food, fuel, generators and towers. The communications contractor that was supporting the drilling operation has graciously offered us the use of one of their comm trailers which comes equipped with a 50 foot crank up tower and a comfy little shack to operate from. A couple of generators and a few drums of fuel and we'll be all set. The only changes to the operating schedule are that we're now going to arrive on the island Friday morning (N. America) instead of Thursday night and it will only be VE8EV and VE8DW so likely SSB only.

I'll post a final update before we hit the road Friday morning. Wish us luck!

John - VE8EV