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!

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