I gave the ARRL DX contest a miss last year and I wasn't available for CQ WW either. This was going to be my last chance to do a big contest from the old site and I wasn't going to miss it even though the geomagnetic forecast was for 'unsettled' conditions. It was hard to convince the XYL that my time wouldn't be better spent working on getting the new house ready but Friday afternoon, in brilliant sunshine and balmy -30C weather, the shack rolled out of the driveway on its way up to the hill, likely for the last time. Nelson, VE8NE, was kind enough to give me a hand hooking things up and repairing the vertical that blew over in a big storm last month. The setup went relatively smoothly and the station was ready to go with an hour to spare before the start of the contest.
Since I hadn't had time to arrange some sort of internet connection I was going to be unassisted for the contest. What I didn't know was that just as I was arriving on the hill the sun spit out an M3 solar flare. When you operate HF from under the auroral oval there just isn't anything worse than a solar flare. The high energy protons stream into the polar regions shortly after the flare and heavily ionize the D-layer. The ionospheric attenuation can affect frequencies as high as the 6m band and on the lower HF frequencies the absorption can be as high as 30dB or more! As if that isn't bad enough, the flare also disturbs the geomagnetic field and the high energy particles cause the aurora to blaze intensely. It is, without a doubt, the most unfriendly HF radio environment you can imagine. The only silver lining is that sometimes weird things can happen. I've heard legends of things like 160m contacts between Alaska and Europe and 6m beacons from South Africa being received during extreme solar events. I remember once back in the nineties I made a 20m contact with Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean during a severe geomagnetic storm when they were the only signal I could hear on any band. I had always thought it would be interesting (not necessarily "fun") to see what would happen if there was a disturbance like that during a big contest when lots of stations were active across the bands at unusual hours. The little M-class flare Friday afternoon didn't break any records but it did make for some difficult and unusual conditions during the contest.
The first sign of something being "off" was right at the opening bell. I usually start this contest with a nice run of Asian stations on 15m. After an initial surge of a few dozen stations I was soon talking to myself. I tried a couple of different bands but nothing would work. Propagation to the south was pretty good, though, and I had no trouble collecting every South American and Caribbean multiplier I could find, even through the wall of USA stations calling them. When I started running out of new stations to work I pulled out my "go-to" plan: point the beam at the morning grayline over Asia, find a spot at the low end of the band and just sit and call CQ. Trying to run inside the US phone bands during this contest when there is any kind of propagation to the USA is practically impossible. Zero-point W and VE stations attack me like mosquitoes in the bush. No amount of qualified cqing ('CQ-DX-CONTEST-ONLY-DX-STATIONS-NO-US-OR-CANADA-CALLING-DX-ONLY-FOR-THE-DX-CONTEST') stops them from calling me so the only thing that helps is moving just outside of the US phone band. They STILL call me but at least in much fewer numbers and always disappear instantly when I remind them they're out of band. I sat there calling CQ on 20m for a couple of hours and never had anything develop that I would describe as a 'run'. A few JA's, a gaggle of UA9's and zeroes, a VU (!), all with decent signals but few in numbers. The warble on some of the signals told me that something was going on with the geomagnetic field but without internet access I wasn't sure what it was and, in any case, I couldn't do anything about it anyway.
I always have high hopes for the low bands in contests. Without a decent low band antenna at home this is my only chance to work DX on 40/80/160m. Even with a good antenna working the low bands is exceptionally difficult from up here due to the high absorption levels. I've had the pleasure of catching some excellent low band conditions during most of the contests I've been in during the last few years . I always have hopes of being able to run, at least on 40m, but when I went down to 40m around 0300z I knew it wasn't going happen this time. I was able to work most stations on 40m with just a few calls but I knew from the number of fills required that propagation was poor. I searched-and-pounced on 40m right through European sunrise and worked most everyone I could hear but not very easily. I checked 80m a few times but never heard a peep, not even a KL7. A few calls over the pole on 20m also failed to drum up any activity. That was when I knew for sure this was not going to be a good weekend. I can almost always count on a big run of Europeans over the pole on 20m after their sunrise but not this time. It had been a long day of hard work and with only a couple of hundred in the log after six hours I could hardly keep my eyes open anymore. I shut down and hopped into the bunk for a few hours sleep.
Despite the poor conditions I had done a pretty good job of collecting multipliers on Friday so my hope for Saturday was to try to put some QSO's in the log to multiply! I CQ'd at Europe on 20m all morning and was finally rewarded with a decent run for a few hours. When the run slowed down to a crawl in the early afternoon I went from band to band and cleaned up whatever I could hear that I hadn't worked the day before including a handful of multipliers on 10m. After the big European run in the morning and the flurry of new multipliers in the afternoon I settled in for a long evening of calling on 20m along the morning grayline as it tracked across the other side of the world. I even had another VU station call in as the sunrise tracked across the Indian subcontinent. Signals kept getting louder and louder and once again I had high hopes for a European sunrise run. This time I was not disappointed. Apparently I was booming into Europe on 20m and many said I was the only North American station they were hearing on the band. Around 0630z though, just as the run was shifting into high gear, the aurora came out and funny things began to happen. Signals got all weak and watery and even though I was beaming over the pole I started to get stations calling in from all directions. Europe, South Pacific, USA (rolls eyes...), even a fellow VE8 stopped by to say hello from only 300 miles away. I recognized the pattern and, sure enough, after the quick chat with VE8DAV no one else could hear me anymore. I checked 40m but no one could hear me there either. I did manage to work WL7E for the mult on 80m and a KH7X a few minutes later on a pass from 40m but that was it. With the QSO count approaching 1000 I was feeling a bit better about things when I turned in and I decided that if the bands were good tomorrow, I might still be able to get close to a million points.
The next morning I got up just after 12z and was in excellent spirits after I checked the bands: Europe was booming in on 15m! I had visions of a big 15m European run where every second caller was a new multiplier and maybe even some Africans would turn up. I quickly made a cup of coffee and S&P'd my way across 15m as I hurriedly slurped up a bowl of cereal. Everyone was answering on the first call and around 1220z I was almost finished my breakfast and ready to start calling CQ. I was right in mid-qso with a European station when he suddenly disappeared on me. As I put the last spoonful in my mouth I zoomed out the panadaptor and watched every signal on the band fade away. I checked back every few minutes for the rest of the morning but other than a weak opening for a half-hour around 15z they never came back. One of these days a contest will happen when I have an opportunity to rest up the week before and I won't miss out on all the nifty middle of the night stuff. Hmmph!
Despite the disappointment of missing the big 15m opening, 20m was wide open to Europe and I spent the rest of the morning filling the bucket. Lots of loud QRP stations and weak KW stations but I kept calling and they kept answering. Around lunchtime the run ended and I turned the beam south to start multiplier hunting again. Signals were surprisingly good and I had already worked a few new ones when VE8DW stopped by (in person) for a visit. We chatted for a while while I absently tuned around the band. We were chuckling at the insane pileup around PJ4G (apparently he had an S9 noise level and couldn't hear anyone) when suddenly I said "Hey, something funny just happened. All the signals just dropped about 5 S-units." After Wally left I struggled to put anyone else in the log. Hardly anyone could hear me and the few stations I got through to needed multiple fills. I watched the rate meters unwind towards zero for an hour and then I gave up. I felt like I'd been in a battle for the last two days and even though there was still three hours to go I was done. I disconnected from the antennas, hitched up the trailer and headed for home.
Final raw score was 1214 contacts with 148 multipliers for 539,016 points. Not a record and I didn't even beat my previous 2010 score but not bad at all given what the sun threw at me. When I got home the first thing I did was jump on the computer to see what the space weather had been doing all weekend. I was shocked when I read about the solar flare and saw how high the geomagnetic activity level had been for the entire contest. If I had seen a forecast that looked like the 48-hour history I wouldn't have even bothered showing up. I imagine that "funny thing" that happened Sunday afternoon was the arrival of high energy particles from an X-class flare that started up a few hours before the contest ended. As I write this (on Monday), the HF bands are shut tight from one end to the other. Ahh, to live in an interesting place in interesting times!