Sunday, December 19, 2010
Operator(s): VE8EV VE8DW
Class: M/M HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 7
Band CW Qs Ph Qs CW Mults Ph Mults
40: 29 3 6 3
20: 31 493 7 8
15: 56 6 5 2
Total: 116 512 18 13 Total Score = 109,120
A little bit of aurora made for a bumpy ride most of the day but we had some great runs whenever it lifted. Spent a lot of time on 15m and 40m but twenty was the only band that really opened to anywhere. Thanks to Radio Amateurs of Canada for the snappy callsign and Wally VE8DW for manning the second chair.
Sunday, December 12, 2010
Class: SO Mixed HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 10
Band QSOs Mults
Total: 294 72 Total Score = 58,464
Fairly casual effort, just Saturday afternoon and Sunday til 2230z. I could follow the "2pm peak" across North America on both days. Zero rate until 2pm in New England when suddenly the band lit up with W1's and slowly tracked west until it was just 6's calling around 2pm Pacific and then died out after that. Had a lot of fun especially on CW!
John - VE8EV
Sunday, December 5, 2010
Class: M/S HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 9
Total: QSOs = 50 Sections = 38 Countries = 12 Total Score = 5,168
I had a home renovation project go into extra innings and wasn't able to get on until Saturday afternoon. The K-index was 0 or 1 the entire time and I thought I'd be able to do better than 50 Q's! Ratio of heard to worked was about 2:1. I spent a lot of time CQing but not many takers. I got spotted twice and that was directly responsible for about half my QSO's. I'll have a better antenna next year.
John - VE8EV
Monday, November 22, 2010
For the first four hours I kept up a decent rate at first on 15m and later on 20m but at 0100z, with over 400 Q's already on the books, the band closed as if someone hit a switch. 40m was wide open but EVERYONE was already there and packed about three deep from one end of the band to the other. With the new 40m yagi I didn't have much trouble working anyone I could hear but most of the weaker stations were buried under the QRM from the big guns. I tried repeatedly to get a run going but nothing worked. Every time I thought I had found a tiny bit of elbow room to squeeze into I quickly found out that there were guys I couldn't hear already running there. I struggled all night but by the time I gave up and went to bed at 0600z I had only made 65 Q's in five hours. I even checked 80m a few times in the vain hope that I might pick up a few contacts there but there was still enough aurora out that I didn't hear a peep anywhere on the band.
Around lunchtime my spider-sense started tingling (or maybe I just caught a bit of a Spanish accent in the pileup) and I asked if there was any Puerto Rican stations on frequency. Sure enough NP4G was in there and that only left Northern Territories for the sweep. I'd hate to miss my own section! I had reminded VE8GER before the contest started to make sure he found me but here it was noon on Sunday and I hadn't heard from him yet. I started to think that maybe he had run into equipment problems or had an accident on his way out to his cabin but I needn't have worried. About an hour later he called in and the sweep was in the bag! I checked the log after the contest and except for one each of PR and NL I had multiple contacts for all the sections so pretty sure I'll be sipping coffee from the official mug next year. Sweeeep!
Class: Single Op HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 24
Total: 1309 Sections = 80 Total Score = 209,440
I worked hard at this one and finally managed to get my very first sweep! Band conditions were the best I've ever had on SS weekend. I even worked 10m for a few minutes.
Full write-up at http://ve8ev.blogspot.com
John - VE8EV
Monday, November 1, 2010
The one guest operator who is never invited but ALWAYS shows up is Murphy. He arrived early this year so he could help out the week before the contest. His first contribution was (relatively) warm weather. Good for working on antennas and such but it also kept the river from freezing enough for VE8GER to get to town from his cabin out in the bush. Scratch one operator. Murphy also wanted to help out with the propagation. The Wednesday before the contest the geomagnetic forecast for the weekend changed from "mostly quiet" to "active at high-latitudes due to arrival of a CME". Being one operator short was not a show-stopper but active geomagnetic conditions surely was. I could easily foresee having the K-index at 5 for the whole contest and only hearing a few fluttery signals on 20m from guys that couldn't hear us calling. Been there, done that. The final blow was on Friday afternoon. After helping to get everything set up on Thursday, VE8DW had a family emergency come up and wouldn't able to operate on the weekend. The only good part was that after his triple-play of bad news, Murphy eventually left to help out others (did he show up at your station on the weekend..?)
As always, there wasn't anything that could be done about the propagation. We'd just have to fight through the aurora and hope for a few openings. I thought about going SOAB but I knew VE8NE was still keen to get on the air so I decided to be the good Elmer and planned for Multi-Single. He wasn't going to be available during any peak hours but would still be able to get his feet wet chasing multipliers on 20m for a few hours at night while I cruised the low bands. After a quick read of the M-S rules we were more-or-less ready to go at 0000z. My plan was simply to run on 40m during the night, 20m during the day, spend every other hour chasing multipliers, and hope the aurora held off long enough to at least get a few hundred contacts in the log.
As most plans are wont to do, mine did not survive first contact with the enemy. At only fifty feet high the new yagi was just "ok" on forty but the band sounded like daylight-20m with wall-to-wall signals one end to the other. I couldn't find a decent place to get a run going but didn't have much trouble S&P'ing and since it was just the start of the contest there were more than enough stations to keep me entertained. There was not much activity on 20m but VE8NE managed to put a handful of mults in the log including a VU and an S79, both of which were the only ones heard during the contest. After midnight local I dropped down to see what was happening on 80m and 160m (not much) and when VE8NE left I spent the rest of the night jumping from band to band to band, always being mindful of the "10-minute rule". The bands were all still going strong at 5am when I finally hit the bunk for a 3-hour snooze.
The new S-33 at sunrise. 40 foot elements on a 24 foot boom is
small for a 40m yagi but it sure seems like a monster to me!
The next morning I poked around over the pole on 15m and 20m but never got anything big going. 15m opened early to North America and the Caribbean so I found a spot and started running again. After the 200/hr rates the day before I ran at a somewhat more relaxed pace this time. Every hour or two I'd slip away to grab a few mults on 20m and when 10m opened up (10 meters!!) (AGAIN!!!) I managed a little mini-run there to pick off all the "easy" zones on that band. Special thanks to VE8GER, still out at his cabin, for finding me to provide the double-mult on 10m. As soon as N0KE called in from zone 4 it was back to the endless run of stations on 15m. The last hour is usually tough going so I decided to just point the beam out west, find a nice quiet spot on 15m outside the US phone bands, relax and run JA's and Pacific stations for the last hour with a few quick QSY's here and there to pick up a final few multipliers. As the last minutes went by, the 15m QSO counter ticked over 1000 beating the 20m count by 150 Q's and marking the first time in my experience that a band other than 20m had the most contacts. Final numbers were 2058 Q's, 300 mults, and 1,509,300 points, breaking the 22-year old NT Multi-Single record by almost a million points.
Operator(s): VE8EV VE8NE
Class: M/S HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 40
Band QSOs Zones Countries
160: 5 5 5
80: 22 12 11
40: 151 21 47
20: 846 33 88
15: 1003 25 42
10: 31 6 5
Total: 2058 102 198 Total Score = 1,509,300
A few sunspots and no aurora can sure liven up a weekend; the propagation was outstanding! I spent most of the daylight hours running and the nighttime chasing multipliers. 15m was the money band during the day but 20m and even 40m were going non-stop. I even managed to get all the "easy" multipliers on 160m and 10m for the first time. Newcomer VE8NE got on for a few hours in the evenings (his first time on HF) and thanks to VE8DW for helping set up the second position.
John - VE8EV
Saturday, August 7, 2010
My latest diversion is portable QRP satellite operations. John, K8YSE, noticed that I spend a fair amount of time travelling to 'exotic' locations around the Arctic so he sent me up an Arrow II dual-band satellite antenna . This little antenna is an amazing piece of craftsmanship. It consists of a two-piece aluminum boom about three feet long with a 7-element UHF yagi on one plane and a 3-element VHF yagi on the other. All the antenna elements are made from aluminum arrow shafts and they thread together at the boom. The whole antenna weighs less than two pounds and fits into a two-foot long 3" mailing tube for travelling. I already had a VHF handheld (which I hadn't ever used in the three years since I got it!) for the uplink and I was able to scrounge up a UHF handheld to receive the downlink. A $20 camera tripod from a discount store completed the package and I was ready to get on the air. After a bit of practice, I found I could assemble the entire station in about 5 minutes if I was in a hurry.
Operating from Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories in grid CP27
From studying a grid square map I determined that there are about a dozen different grids that I could operate from during my travels. Many satellite operators collect grid squares to qualify for the ARRL VUCC Award. Unfortunately, my far northern location limits the time for a mutual satellite window between here and the more populated areas of the world but on the plus side I can also reach over the pole to Europe and across the North Pacific to Asia. My first 'grid expedition' was to Fort McPherson, NT which lies in the CP27 grid. Less than two hours away by road, it is the southernmost location that I visit on a regular basis. On the first pass of the HO-68 satellite that day I made a whopping 16 QSO's, including two from Europe. Unfortunately, the rest of the passes that afternoon did not favor any populated areas so I only made a handful of contacts on the other birds. I had one good AO-51 pass scheduled for the end of the day and I decided to try to operate from Tsiigehtchic, NT in grid CP37 on the way home. That too didn't work out very well. I just barely made it there with 5 minutes before the start of the pass but for some reason I wasn't hearing the bird very well and I had a bad connection on the VHF radio antenna jack. By the time I had it all sorted out the bird was already over the North Pole and no one else was heard. Not to worry though. I travel to all these places at least once or twice a year so I will be back on from there sooner or later.
Camping on the August long weekend. My little nephew thinks satellite DX is pretty cool after we worked RN0QA in Yakutsk, Russia on AO-51.
I have special VE8EV/P QSL cards on the way from the printer for all my portable operations and will be happy to QSL via all the usual methods.
73 and look for you on the birds!
Sunday, May 16, 2010
The first wave of 700 CK8G QSL requests ready to be answered.
I really don't mind answering requests for QSL cards. I've had several people offer to be my QSL manager but I've got a great system for processing QSL requests that really makes it a breeze. The cards for my CK8G NA-182 expedition arrived this week so it was finally time to clear the backlog of requests that had built up since the operation ended. My post office box was already full when I returned from the island and in the intervening four weeks I've amassed a stack of envelopes about 500 strong! Add to that another 100 via the on-line QSL request system and 100 more for the GDXF bureau system and it could take weeks to get caught up. In fact, it took me all day Saturday from start to finish. Here are the secrets of running your own 'QSL Factory' for your next dxpedition or special event station:
- Start with a clean log. Every busted call in the log takes extra time to find and correct at QSL time. It's well worth taking an extra few seconds to confirm a call while you're on the air than to have to search for it in the log when its not correct. I try pretty hard to keep the average error rate below 1% (1 busted call in 100).
- Pre-print the QSL labels. Yes, ALL of them! I export the entire log (dupes and all) into Excel, sort it by callsign, and then run a mail-merge in Word to print the labels on Avery 5160 Easy-Peel laser printer label sheets, 30 to a page. Even up here in the Arctic a box of 3000 labels only costs $65. Once they're all printed I bind them (optional) with a plastic binding bar to become an easy to use book. When I get a QSL request it literally takes seconds to grab the book, flip to the right page and peel out the sticker and slap it on a QSL card.
- Don't try to do too many things at once as your workspace will get too crowded. I usually open all the mail as it arrives, check which operation it is for, unfold the reply envelopes, put the card inside the reply envelope with the IRC or return postage, and set it aside for further processing at a later date (usually when the cards arrive from the printer).
- Have self-inking stamps made for return address and verification (the little circle with your callsign that says 'QSO VERIFIED' or something like that). My arm would fall off if I had to hand write my return address on every envelope!
- Organize your workspace so everything you need is within reach. Blank cards, labels, stamps, tape, etc.
- Find a work flow that you're comfortable with and use 'key events' to regulate the flow so no steps are missed. I use the verification stamp as the key event to file the received card and switch from QSO lookup mode to envelope stuffing mode. The return address stamp is the trigger to set the now sealed envelope aside for adding postage and grabbing the next one.
- Don't waste time with distractions. Any request that needs something unusual (not-in-the-log, SWL request, requests for QSL's from multiple operations, etc.) just put it aside for later and keep going.
- Get self-adhesive postage stamps! I get mine in rolls of 50 stamps and I can stick them on a stack of envelopes faster than I could run the same amount of mail through a postage meter (although a postage meter is an option if you have access to one.)
- Know your postal system. You don't want any mail coming back to you or being delayed because of things you should have caught before it went out. Postal rates and requirements change often. Have a talk with the postmaster or a postal manager about what you're doing when you go to buy postage. Is there a discount for bringing it in bundled and sorted? Maybe a special deal for 'bulk' mailings that might be applicable? This would also be a good time to talk about IRC's and any specific requirements for trading them in for international postage.
Having all the QSL labels pre-printed really is the key, though. Forever more (and you will have people looking for QSL's forever) all you need to do is grab the book off the shelf and stick the label on a blank QSL card. No computers, no printers, no hand writing.
All the CK8G cards are now in a big shopping bag by the door ready to drop off to the post office in the morning. It almost didn't happen, though! I was not impressed with the quality of the QSL cards that I got from the printer. I know if I called to complain they would re-print them for me but that would mean waiting for another month and without much guarantee that they would be better the second time around. In the end I decided to send them out as-is. The color balance on the photo is a bit off but maybe I'm too much of a perfectionist...
Thursday, May 13, 2010
When an emergency work trip to Sachs Harbour on Banks Island (NA-129) came up last week I grabbed my radio and the backup dipole antenna that was still packed from my Greens Island trip and set out to see what I could do with it in my spare time. The first night I was there I strung the antenna from my favorite flood light pole and spent a few hours on the radio. No huge pileups but with perseverance I was able to make a few dozen contacts on CW and SSB. It was all downhill after that.
For the rest of my four day stay I was only able to make a handful of additional contacts. The bands were crowded with no less than three contests running on the weekend (one each on CW, SSB and RTTY), the propagation got worse every day due to multiple solar flares and there was persistent local QRN that I couldn't locate. I called CQ endlessly, alternating between SSB and CW without any answers. At one point I even got up in the middle of the night and went up to the airport to try my luck during the peak midnight sun grey line hours. One contact. After a while I gave up and went back to bed.
I'm not giving up forever, though. I just need to be better prepared next time. Instead of a dipole, I'm going to build a lightweight, collapsible ZL-Special antenna for 20m. If I can find a way I'll get a little 300-400W solid-state expedition amplifier that'll lend an extra 6dB to my signal without the huge weight penalty of the FL-2100B. Then, a little Arrow dual-band yagi will get me onto the satellites to hand out the rare grid square to VHF operators. Hopefully I'll have everything together in time for my annual trip to Ulukhaktok on Victoria Island (NA-006) which I've conveniently scheduled to take place during the IOTA contest in July ;)
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
On the eastern side of NA-182 was the community of Paulatuk, NT. Much more expensive to fly into than Tuktoyaktuk but it was only 23 miles away from Clapperton Island. This looked like a much more plausible scenario and as I was measuring the distances on Google Earth I noticed there were several other small islands right by Paulatuk that one could almost walk to! I carefully examined each one but found that they either didn't really exist or did not qualify for IOTA for one reason or another. As I looked farther along the coast I came across a small island only 9 miles away that seemed to meet all the minimum criteria and it had an official name: Greens Island. I sent all the pertinent info to the manager of the IOTA program, G3KMA, and received a prompt reply that yes, it does qualify for NA-182 and would be added to the official list. Now I could start planning an expedition!
Greens Island from space on Google Earth. The white spots in the water are ice.
I travel to Paulatuk on business several times a year and I started talking to the airport maintainer there, Tim Ruben, about organizing a trip over to Greens Island. Tim is very much a 'can-do' kind of guy and told me that however we wanted to do it he would make it happen for me. By boat in the summer, snowmobile in the winter, supplies, equipment, whatever it took, he'd take care of that end of it. Over the next six months we stayed in touch as the plans developed. My first inclination was to try to organize a big operation. Three or four guys, two stations, round-the-clock operation, CW and SSB. Once I started crunching the numbers, however, I realized it just wouldn't be possible. Air travel in the Arctic is fantastically expensive. A return ticket just from Inuvik to Paulatuk is $1000 and air freight is $5 per kilogram. I knew I could count on the IOTA community and a few DX clubs to provide some support but as rare as NA-182 was in IOTA circles it still wasn't a rare DXCC entity. I finally concluded that with a concerted fundraising effort it might be possible to bring along one other operator to work CW. I asked a few guys to pass the word that I was looking for a second op to go with me to NA-182 and I waited.
Summer turned to fall and then back into winter again. I was very lucky for the second time and pulled off a respectable solo operation on Banks Island (NA-129) in July and after my holiday-style operation on St. Lucia (NA-108) at Christmas I turned my attention back to Greens Island. I hadn't had any bites yet for a second op so I posted a message on an IOTA forum that I was looking for another op to join a potential expedition in April. Much to my dismay, the request got picked up by the DX newsletters and was cross-posted around the world. Surprisingly though, even after going global, there was still very little interest. I did find one guy that was wanting to make the trip but after a few weeks of planning he dropped out of sight. With the proposed trip less than two months away I had to make some hard decisions. I had never been comfortable asking for donations so I had also been counting on the second op to manage a fundraising effort. Now there was no second op, no fundraising done and no publicity. I decided it was time to go solo. Two operators would have been nice but the window for that had closed. I set the target date as April 15-20 and made the announcements that it would be a single-op expedition. With the projected cost somewhat reduced, I set to work trying to raise support for the trip. I contacted a handful of prominent IOTA chasers, explained what I was trying to do, and asked for their help. Incredibly, not only were most of them willing to help but many were willing to send significant donations in advance of the trip! I was genuinely touched at their generosity and their confidence in my abilities. I also contacted several DX clubs that support IOTA activities and was pleased to receive commitments from the German DX Foundation and the Clipperton DX Club. Of course the one source of funding that I had counted on all along was the Island Radio Expedition Foundation. They had been strong supporters of my plans since the very beginning and I knew I could count on them again. Funding was in hand and all I had to do now was wait.
The exact timing of the operation would be critical. When I say I was lucky on my previous trips I meant just that. Operating in the Arctic auroral zone is tricky. If there was any significant geomagnetic activity then HF propagation from the island would be nil. I took the target dates for my operation and worked them backwards in 27 day increments, comparing them to the geomagnetic situation on those dates. While it is difficult to project that far ahead I didn't see anything that indicated there would be any recurrent instability. The official geomagnetic forecast for the period of my trip wasn’t issued until the second week of April but when it finally came out I was relieved to see that the days I had chosen were predicted to be the quietest of the entire month! Could I really be that lucky three times in a row?
As the departure date drew near I talked to Tim in Paulatuk every few days and we made the final arrangements. My original plan was to be fully independent. Rent a snowmobile, sled, tent and generator for the week and take care of myself with only a bit of help from Tim to put up the tower on the first day. A few days before I left I found out that wasn't going to be possible as no one in Paulatuk wanted to rent out their snowmobile for a whole week. After the adventures Cezar, VE3LYC, had on NA-231 at the end of March I was somewhat apprehensive about being left alone on the island with no transportation but decided I would have to make the best of it. In addition to my satellite phone, I also had a VHF radio to talk back to Paulatuk with and, of course, my HF rig so I was well connected to the outside world.
I was busy the week before I left making detailed lists and assembling all the equipment. I was being extra cautious as I didn't want to end up in the middle of nowhere missing one critical item needed to get on the air. All the important equipment had spares or a backup. Icom Canada kindly provided an IC-7200 that I brought along as a spare radio and I even brought an emergency dipole antenna and feedline just in case there was some sort of mishap with the tower and the yagi. Everything was carefully packed because it had to survive not only the airplane ride but a bumpy sled ride across the sea ice. I shipped most of the gear to Paulatuk the weekend before I left. I didn't want any of my freight to get 'bumped' on the day I travelled.
The weather forecast when I left was for high winds and unseasonably warm temperatures, right around freezing for the entire period. The hour and a half flight into Paulatuk was uneventful and Tim met me at the airport. Our first objective was to get fuel and water before the stores closed for the day. I was surprised to find out that there is no locally bottled water available in Paulatuk and I ended up buying a case of brand-name bottled water. Tim was insistent that he could get me an empty jug and fill it up with water at his house but if I was going to live in a tent for a week I wanted the good stuff! I also needed to get gasoline for the generator. Tim only had three jerry cans so we filled them up at the fuel station and he promised to bring out more as necessary. Then he took me to meet his brother in-law.
I hold Tim in pretty high regard. His excellent work maintaining the tiny airport was just a sideline to his real job as a heavy equipment operator keeping the streets clear, which is no small feat in a community like Paulatuk. Ferocious blizzards are commonplace and they had just finished digging out from one the day before I arrived. On my last visit I had told Tim what my budget for snowmobile rental and outfitting was and promised him the whole amount if he could get the job done. Instead of taking the money and trying to put all the pieces together himself, he passed the entire job (and the substantial fee) to his brother in-law, Pat Thrasher. Pat was a local professional guide and had everything we needed to make the trip a success. Snowmobiles and quads, sleds, the tent and a generator were all provided by Pat. Between the two of them I was well looked after and they even took turns bringing extra fuel out every couple of days.
Looking across the Paulatuk airport towards Greens Island. That's a six foot high fence disappearing into the snowdrift!
We waited until late evening for the winds to die down a bit before we headed out across the sea ice. I insisted on going slowly to minimize the trauma to the equipment in the sleds so it was almost 10pm by the time we reached the island. The sun was still shining when we arrived, only a few weeks away from being up for 24 hours, but by the time we had the tent set up, the yagi put together and the tower raised it was already past midnight. It was quite dark inside the tent and the small lamp that I brought was the only thing that did not survive the bumpy ride. After Pat, Tim and his wife headed back to town I got the tent squared away by flashlight and went to bed. The wind howled all night long but I was reasonably warm in my heavy sleeping bag and the generator and electric heater ran through the night.
Digging out the tent frame after arrival on Greens Island. The local people camp here in the spring watching for whales to arrive in the bay.
Waking up in the morning was a surreal experience. Here I was, finally, on Greens Island. The wind had died down and the sun was shining brightly. The generator was still humming outside and thanks to the electric heater it was quite comfortable inside the tent. I made myself breakfast and then set up the station. This wasn't my first trip to a rare location so I had a pretty good idea what to expect. I threw out the CK8G callsign a few times and quickly had an enormous pileup. Conditions really didn't seem that good the first day but I still managed to put 1000 in the log. Once the European sunset rush died out I worked more and more North American stations until the JA's and UA0's started calling in around midnight zulu. Then I'd turn the beam west and work Asia until the Europeans started calling again around their sunrise. That was more or less the same operating pattern for my entire time on the island. I got into the habit of taking a short nap every evening as that was the slowest time and then staying up until well after midnight. Conditions improved every day and it wasn't until after I got back home that I found out there had been no sunspots at all. Go figure! I also found out that the geomagnetic forecasts had been accurate and there was no significant auroral activity for most of my time on the island.
Looking north across the ocean towards Europe.
Most days were very much like the first. I kept to my stated intentions to give special attention to Europe and Japan. Europe was easy. Every day I would get up in the morning and start with the antenna pointed over the pole to Europe. The pileups were big and sometimes unruly but after three dxpeditions and lots of contesting I was fairly comfortable. The important thing was to keep the rate up. By-the-numbers, split operation, whatever it took, just keep growing the log. European cluster pileups can be worked through but you have to know what you're doing. After all these years it’s nice to finally have the mental tools required to pull off this kind of operation and it was especially gratifying after the operation to look at the comments on the dxcluster and see nothing negative. In fact, the only thing even close to a negative comment was early on when one op posted 'why no split?' The answer, of course, was that I had the attenuator on and the gain turned down and I was still working the loud guys at a decent rate. Running split takes up twice the bandwidth and I'll only do it if I can't maintain a decent rate running simplex. If you ever hear me spreading the pile out over 5kHz then you can bet there's a LOT of people calling me.
From a logistics point of view the operation was a smashing success. Other than a couple of mysterious glitches on the second day, Pat's 3500W generator ran flawlessly throughout the operation and it only burned about 30 litres of gasoline per day. Camping with a big generator is totally different than 'roughing it'. I had a 1500W electric heater that kept the tent cozy and warm. I brought along my drip coffee maker which, in addition to providing a nice cup of coffee on demand, also doubled to make hot water for instant soup. I had lots of cold cuts and bread and I even brought along 8 litres of fresh milk. The four cardboard cartons almost didn't survive the sled trip and were all leaking from broken bottoms but luckily I was able to decant them into empty water bottles. Every morning I had a nice bowl of cereal and milk in my coffee right up until the very last day!
This is how I spent most of my six days on the island. Sitting in the tent with my coffee cup at hand, keyboard in my lap, and big pileups on the radio!
After the first few days I started to notice a lack of North American and Asian stations in the log. I had very good propagation to the USA and Canada so I'm at a loss to explain why it seemed so hard to fill the log with W/VE stations. I received excellent signal reports, there just weren't a lot of callers. It was the same situation with Asia. I had received a considerable amount of support from Japan so I wanted to make a good showing there but they just didn't seem to be around in large numbers. On the other side of the Arctic Ocean, the band (I only worked 20m) was open to Europe almost around the clock. Half the stations in my log were European, almost 500 from Italy alone! For the last four days I spent each night calling CQ with the beam pointed west to Asia and worked more JA's and numerous VK/ZL stations. I even found a long-path opening to Africa in the wee hours that was previously unknown to me! In the final analysis, there was a fairly good mix of stations in the log and unlike my previous trips, this time I had lots of rare DX call in including a couple of dozen African stations and a smattering of rare Pacific islands. Final breakdown was 48% Europe, 37% North America and 14% Asia.
Like the propagation, the weather also steadily improved except for the third day. It had been windy since I arrived but on that day the winds were gusting to 80km/h. I turned the antenna edge on to the wind and left it there most of the day, afraid to turn it against the wind. The tent flapped violently and I thought for sure I was going to lose the tower. I went out a few times to check the guy ropes but since there was not much else I could do about it I just hunkered down inside the tent and kept making contacts. I kept one eye on the SWR meter all day watching for signs of impending doom. The next morning dawned calm, clear, and warm. When I crawled out of the tent I was surprised to find everything was just as I had left it. The tower was still standing, the antenna looked fine, and the generator was still purring away. The band was in excellent shape that day and after a great European sunset run I continued to work a mix of European and stateside stations well past midnight zulu.
Every expedition usually has a goal. Since this was strictly an IOTA expedition (ie; not also a rare DXCC entity) I didn’t have to worry about working multiple bands and modes. My only goal was to work as many unique stations as possible. In that respect as well, the operation was a huge success. Over 4500 different callsigns made it into the log. I can’t complain about the high number of duplicates (almost 400) as most of them came while I was calling CQ and guys just wanted to say hello and let me know I was getting out ok. In fact, I had a LOT of people mention how loud I was. It’s a little bit surprising since I was only running about 500 watts to the little TH3JRS yagi at 30 feet off the ground but I’m pleased all the same. I know there were many that had no idea who, what, or where I was and made the contact with me just because I had a big signal and an unusual callsign!
The sun shone every day while I was there.
By my last full day on the island I was starting to get the feeling that I was scraping the bottom of the barrel for contacts. Outside of Europe the pileups were mostly gone. I called CQ a lot and worked many QRP and mobile stations. What had really happened was that the aurora, absent for several days, had now returned and conditions were getting back to normal. I had received a few requests for some CW operation and in reality my CW skills are not all that bad but they’re not up to running a huge pileup. Now that things were quieter I did get on CW but I was short one USB port on the computer and could not use the mouse, keyboard, and CW keyer all at the same time. It was a bit awkward but I still managed to make a few dozen contacts in that mode.
I’d been living all alone in a tent in the middle of nowhere for a week and by the end I was ready to go home. The entire operation had gone very, very well and all I needed to do now was get myself and all my equipment off the island and safely back home. With the aurora out in force on the last night I made a few more contacts in CW and then pulled the plug. First thing next morning I started tearing down the station and by the time Pat arrived on the island at noon all that was left was to lower the tower and pack up the yagi. It was still unseasonably warm and there were several inches of water on top of the ice all the way back to Paulatuk. The huge snowdrifts that had greeted me on my arrival were all but gone and we had to use a truck to pull the sled into town and over to the airport. Once again luck was on my side and there was enough room on the plane for myself and all my equipment, even the tower sections! A few minutes after takeoff we flew past Greens Island and I couldn’t resist staring as it slowly passed and disappeared from view...
Thursday, April 22, 2010
- Back on the mainland safe and sound, waiting for the plane home. Final QSO tally almost 5000! (21 Apr 2010)
- Last day, condx not so good. Might try CW this aft. (20 Apr 2010)
- Ferocious winds today, afraid to turn antenna. 2500 Q's in the log, looking for JA tonight. (18 Apr 2010)
- Propagation improving, over 1000 in the log. Having generator issues this am. (17 Apr 2010)
- On the air. Propagation not great. (16 Apr 2010)
- Coordinates of camp: 69.3744N 124.43015W (15 Apr 2010)
- Arrived on Greens Island. Making camp. QRV in a few hours. (15 Apr 2010)
- Landed in Paulatuk. Loading sleds for trip across the sea ice. (15 Apr 2010)
- Packing the last of the gear. Weather forecast is for strong winds but should let up by the time I arrive on the island. (14 Apr 2010)
Thursday, April 8, 2010
Despite the big geomagnetic storm this past week, the forecast for the duration of the operation is for quiet conditions. The operating schedule will be Asia from 0000-0400z, Europe from 0400-0700z and 1400-1700z, North America from 1800-2300z. That’s generally where I’ll have the antenna pointed but will still happily take callers from anyone that is hearing me. I’ll be operating almost exclusively 20m SSB but I will bring a 40m dipole antenna as a backup.
My plane doesn’t land in Paulatuk until 4pm on Wednesday so I probably won’t be on the air until late that evening (early morning 15 April UTC). I'll be using my satellite phone to post status updates during the trip so watch this space for the latest information.
John - VE8EV
Sunday, March 14, 2010
Learning the code...
No, not THAT code. I'm talking about the kind of code that computers understand. I taught myself to program in BASIC as a teenager back in the early 1980's. My Radio Shack TRS-80 Level II had a whopping 4K of RAM and, for it's time, could do amazing things. A decade later I decided to dust off my old programming skills and write a Windows program that would handle the doppler tuning for my satellite receiver, a Yaesu FRG-8800 with a built-in UHF converter. Much to my dismay, it was only AFTER I took the shrink wrap off my brand new copy of Visual Basic 3.0 that I found out only the much more expensive Visual Basic Professional version included the trivial ability to talk to a serial port! Dejected and thoroughly ticked off, I ended up doing the project in QuickBasic under MS-DOS by starting with a version of G3RUH's PLAN13 tracking software and adding in code to calculate the doppler shift and send the frequency data to the radio's CAT port. That worked pretty well and eventually, when the first version of ZL2TPO's WiSP came out I did finally find a way to use VB 3.0 with a serial port and wrote a little Windows application that tuned the radio based on tracking data passed from WiSP via the Windows DDE interface.
Garbage in, garbage out...
So automated doppler tuning was never that big of a deal but the real holy grail was automated antenna tracking. Back then there were a several options available (most notably the legendary Kansas City Tracker board) but they all had one thing in common. They all assumed that the operator was using a Yaesu G5500 az/el rotator setup. Pretty safe bet because I'll bet that 99% of stations were and still do use that rotator combo to this day. Now it was pretty easy to adapt the control boards to any rotators that used a 0-5V position feedback system and that was central to my problem. Expensive rotators (and for that matter, expensive computer control boards!) have always been a bit too pricey for my budget and I've always gotten by with cheap TV antenna rotators that have no positive feedback. Getting a $50 TV antenna rotator to turn a huge VHF/UHF antenna array is a tricky business and I've always figured that if it died on the job, at most I'd only be out fifty bucks to replace it. But unless I could find a way to get accurate position feedback I'd be out of luck for an automated tracking solution. In the wind and cold there was just no way to predict how far the antennas would actually turn and the indicator on the control box was almost always out of sync.
The light bulb comes on...
When I built my new satellite antenna setup last year, one of my stated goals was to find a way to automate the station. CX6DD's WiSPDDE software was quickly put to use to handle doppler tuning the TS-2000 but since I used yet another cheap TV antenna rotator I was still at square-one for automated antennas. Well, almost at square-one. One of the nifty devices I had come across in my travels was the LabJack U3. This dandy little device would plug into a USB port and provided a plethora of analog and digital inputs and outputs for interfacing to the real world. I knew the moment I saw it that this was the gizmo to solve my antenna interfacing problems. My new antennas were using an old TV dish actuator arm for elevation. This had a little slotted wheel inside between an LED and a photoresistor and when the jackscrew turned it would send pulses down the wire to the control box. Looking at it reminded me of the insides of a computer mouse and that's when I started to get an idea of how to make this all work together. If I took some parts from an old computer mouse and somehow hooked the wheel up to the antenna mast with a belt it would send pulses as it rotated in azimuth just like the elevation jackscrew. All I would need to do is brew up some software to talk to the LabJack, throw in a few relays and I'd have it made.
The LabJack unit and pieces of an old mouse sat in a little box near my desk for a long time waiting for the moment when I would figure out how to physically put it all together in a way that was mechanically sound and operational in all-weather. In the meantime, I made do with manual tracking and the unreliable position indicating. Things actually worked pretty well over the summer, hence the somewhat low priority on the project. Once winter came, however, the situation deteriored. The azimuth rotator would often stick and turn sluggishly in the cold. I missed most of the EME contest because I couldn't accurately point the antenna in overcast when I couldn't see the moon. Working satellites wasn't as much fun because I was always losing the bird at some point during the pass when the indicator got out of sync. In fact, for the two coldest months (December and January) I didn't even bother to put up the antennas. It wasn't until a 'warm' spell in early February that I finally put up the antennas again. I was thrilled to work the new HO-68 satellite. Finally we had an amateur satellite with an AO-7 sized footprint and a strong, multi-mode transponder. I worked the east coast of the USA and a UA0 on the same pass! Not exactly AO-13 but still pretty cool! It also had a digital BBS mode as well. I was a big fan of the pacsats back in the old days and couldn't wait to give the packet mode a try. Unfortunately, the warm spell ended and with the thirty-below weather came all the old problems again. I decided that I had to get moving on my automatic tracking project. It was time!
Back to BASIC...
After stuffing the mouse parts into a weatherproof electrical box and rigging up a little pulley and drive belt, the next step was software. Fortunately, Microsoft now has a freeware version of Visual Basic. Unfortunately, after downloading and installing it I found another 'gotcha': Visual Basic 2008 doesn't support DDE! According to Microsoft, DDE is an antiquated way of doing things and by now all applications that need to pass data back and forth should be using some sort of COM thingys. That's nice, Bill, but all the satellite tracking software out there still uses DDE! After some Google searching I found out that I wasn't alone in my quest for DDE and there were a couple of solutions out there. The one that worked for me was a standalone DDE library written a number of years ago as an improvement on the DDE built into VB. Now that DDE is written out of VB it is quite an improvement indeed! The author has since passed away and the support group seems to have dried up three years ago but it works! Within an hour of downloading it from the dormant web site I was pulling tracking data from Orbitron into the first draft of my program.
The Mad Scientist...
With the azimuth indicating lashup ready to go, the alpha version of the software written, and the LabJack mounted in a box with the relays and power supplies, the next step was to put it all together with the antennas. Surprisingly, the elevation part of the software worked right out of the gate. A few hours of tweaking the code and testing and it was good enough to move onto the azimuth part. This was where things started to go off the rails. The biggest problem was the belt driving the little pulley connected to the optical encoder. It was a good theory but the rubber O-ring I was using got very stiff in the cold and started to crack. Furthermore, I couldn't get the tension set properly. The belt would be almost too tight at one postion and then too loose and slipping at another. Turns out that the mast is not quite centered on the carrier plate. I spent many hours and hundreds of trips up and down the ladder trying to find a solution that would work reliably. No matter what I did the belt (now a toothed microdrive belt) would still slip. I finally determined that not only was the belt slipping, but the lashup with the old mouse board was also somehow skipping pulses. By the time I figured this out I had been going at it for several days in a row. I commented on my Facebook page that I was beginning to understand how a regular scientist turned into a mad scientist! The final straw came when I accidentally broke the mouse board trying to make adjustments to how it mounted in the box. I walked away from the whole thing and decided to just leave it alone for a couple of days while I decided what to do.
A New Approach...
After pondering the situation I decided to abandon the idea of using an optical encoder. It originally seemed like a good idea and, like all ideas, it would have been fine if it had worked. In situations like this you have to know when the time is right to cash in your perseverence, admit defeat, and start looking for a new plan. In this case, I didn't need to look too far. I decided the best course of action would be to replace the encoder with a potentiometer and just do it the same way the rotator manufacturers did. Not finding anything appropriate in my junk pile I pulled up the DigiKey catalog and ordered a nice 10-turn 1K ohm pot. It took less than two weeks to arrive (no UPS in this neighborhood!) and once it was installed in place of the optical encoder things came together quite rapidly. After a couple of hours of mental gymnastics working out the math in the program to deal with the fact that my antennas drive from 180 degrees to 179 degrees (instead of the more usual 0 to 360 degrees) I was ready to give it a try.
The Holy Grail...
When it comes to writing software, eventually the eureka! moment arrives and you find that last tweak did the trick and for the first time it actually works. I had the satisfaction of standing outside and watching the antennas moving incrementally in azimuth and elevation to follow a satellite across the sky. An hour later HO-68 came up and I made my first satellite contacts ever without having to manually adjust the antenna pointing. I still have a bit of calibration to do on the elevation drive and of course the software needs some polishing but for the moment I'm going to stand back and just bask in the glory of completing a complicated project. Once this island thing is wrapped up I might even find the time to do some more work on my KW VHF amplifier...
Thursday, March 11, 2010
Located at 69 22' 36" N 125 25' 35" W in the southwest corner of the Amundsen Gulf, Greens Island qualifies for the Inuvik Region (East) IOTA Group, as confirmed by IOTA Manager G3KMA. The community of Paulatuk, NWT is a scant 15 miles to the east and from there the island is easily accessible by boat in the summer or snowmobile in the winter. While a summer operation would be far easier, more comfortable, and (probably) cheaper, I wanted to go in April to take advantage of the better spring time propagation. The operating plan for the trip will be similar to my other operations. I'm expecting around-the-clock propagation on 20m so I will concentrate on Europe during their sunrise and sunset, North America during their sunset, and Asia right after their sunrise. This should allow me to work a good balance between all the areas and still get a few hours sleep every night. To insure strong signals in both directions I will again be bringing my TH3JRS yagi and FL2100B amplifier.
Luckily, I am very familiar with the area and do not anticipate any problems actually making the operation happen. In fact, I will likely have an opportunity to travel to Paulatuk on business sometime in the next few weeks which will allow me to make all the final arrangements and maybe even allow for a scouting trip out to the island.
Anyone wishing to contribute can click on the Donate button at the right side of the screen to make a donation via PayPal or credit card.
Thanks in advance for your support and I will post any new developments right here.
John - VE8EV
Monday, March 8, 2010
I took Friday off from work and spent the morning getting the shack trailer all squared away for moving. The truck and the trailer hadn't moved since Sweepstakes so there was a lot of shovelling to do and I had to buy two new batteries for the truck (grrr!). Fortunately, the weather was unseasonably mild and I spent the day working in bright sunshine and wearing a light jacket. By mid-afternoon I was all set up at the contest site and plugged into the big TH6DXX tribander at 100ft and the 33ft top-loaded low-band vertical. In between trips to the store for supplies I tuned the bands a bit to see how things were shaping up. I was surprised to find that I was hearing stations from any direction I pointed the antenna. Europe and Asia were both booming in on 20m and several JA's and KH6's were loud on 15m. Even 40m already had several Europeans making it over the pole. This was my first hint that this contest would definitely NOT be business as usual!
After the opening bell I spent the first couple of hours bouncing back and forth between 15m and 20m and alternating between S&P and trying to get a run started. Conditions seemed to be pretty good out to Asia and the Pacific. A couple of rare mults (VU and E51) called in and quite a few low-power JA's and VK's but no decent rates ever developed. With just over a hundred in the log at 0400z and the jury still out on whether conditions were good or bad I popped down to have a go at 40m. Surprisingly, I was able to work almost everyone I could hear and in a half hour I picked up a dozen new mults from Europe, Asia and the Caribbean. Things were starting to look up but it was soon time for the real test. European sunrise was coming up and if the 40m conditions were any indication we were going to get a huge opening on 20m. I pointed the beam north, found a frequency and did a 100/hour run of Europeans. I should have just stayed at it but the opening was so good that the DXer in me took over and I spent the next few hours hunting multipliers on the low-bands. 40m was still cooking and I even spent a bit of time on 80m. No mainland Europe was heard on that band but I did manage to work G, GM, EI, KH6 and KL7. Because of the auroral forecast I hadn't bothered to install the 160m coil on the vertical. As a result, my only 160m contact was KL7RA. I heard KH7XS both times we tried on 160m but couldn't make the contact. If that was the only mult I missed on 160m then it was probably worth it to not having had to wade through the waist-deep snow and monkey around in the cold for an hour. Eventually I decided to try to get my head back in the game and went back up to 20m to work more Europeans. After doing another 100/hour run to Europe I just couldn't help myself and had to go up and see if anything was happening on 15m. I love sneaking over the pole in the middle of the night on 15m and sure enough I worked a few Eastern European and Middle Eastern mults. After that it was back down to the low-bands for a bit more DXing. Several more mults went into the log on 40m (including JT1CO) and I even worked JA, UA0 and LU on 80m before turning in for a much needed 3-hour nap. I set the alarm (and the timer on the coffee pot!) for 5:30am and sacked out with a smile on my face and 400 Q's in the log. Even if the bands tanked over the next two days I already had enough points for a respectable showing so anything from this point on was just gravy. Little did I know that for the rest of the weekend the gravy would be flowing like Niagara Falls!
The bands were still kicking when I got up the next morning so first thing on the agenda was another run of Europeans. For the next three hours I kept the rate meter at 100/hr until the aurora flared up a bit and the run came to a screeching halt. While I was waiting for the aurora to subside I S&P'd a bit, had a nap and ran home to grab a shower. Around 2000z guys finally started answering me on the first call so I went down to my usual watering hole at the bottom of the band. I did another 100/hour to Europe and then after that took a quick spin around the globe and Worked-All-Continents. I left the beam pointed out west for Asian sunrise and did a 100/hour of JA's and Pacific stations. Band conditions were great and only getting better. By midnight zulu the DXer in me was screaming to be let off the chain so I made the call to go single-op-unlimited and pulled up the cluster on the internet. A flurry of Caribbean and South American mults followed and I even made a successful pass from 15m to 10m with LT1F for my only 10m contact. For two solid hours virtually every needed spot on 15 and 20m made it into the log and I even worked a handful of Europeans on 40m (early!). It was a very strange situation but by that point I didn't know what to do with myself anymore. In all my previous contesting experience I had always reacted to conditions. If conditions were good, I'd run. When they weren't then I'd search and pounce. When they got really bad, I'd take a nap. Having outstanding propagation, for so long, on so many different bands was a situation that I just wasn't prepared for. I sat back and was listening to a very loud JT1CO running stateside stations on 20m while I ate my supper and after some thought I decided not to worry about strategy and just enjoy it while it lasted. I always knew that if the sunspots and the aurora ever cooperated our unique geographic location could be huge advantage instead of a disadvantage. It seemed like this was that weekend and being a rare multiplier in the contest was just icing on the cake! By 0600z the greyline had finished tracking across Asia and now the Europeans were again booming in on 20m. I worked TL0A in Central Africa and then did yet another 100/hour running Europeans. Once the run slowed on 20m I spent the next couple of hours DXing on the low-bands. After that, even with all the excitement, I was getting pretty tired. With almost 1000 contacts in the log and closing in on 'weekend-DXCC' I decided to turn in and grab a few hours of sleep.
In the week leading up to a contest I always plan to get plenty of rest. I know that if I'm well rested I can do a 24-hour contest non-stop and a 48-hour contest on 3 hours sleep each night. Unfortunately, life always seems to conspire to prevent me from getting the rest I need before the contest and this time was no exception. Several busy days in a row at work (including a 12-hour day on Thursday) and several late nights meant I was running on empty even before the contest started. When I woke up Sunday morning at 1300z the bands seemed only marginal (aka: normal) so I decided to go back to sleep and try again in a half-hour. Two hours later when I finally got going, the bands had bounced back and I jumped right onto 20m and started running Europe. It's easy to calculate how many Q's I missed by sleeping in because my operating pattern was pretty much the same all day long: run for an hour then play DXer for an hour. 15m never really opened to anywhere except Japan (around their sunrise) but there was just enough weak African and South American stations to keep my attention on that band in between runs of Europeans on 20m. D4C (Cape Verde) was audible on 15m all afternoon and every so often someone else would pop up out of the noise. Despite all the time and knob spinning the end result of my Sunday afternoon efforts on 15m were less than a dozen multipliers. I was also religiously checking 10m every half-hour or so but never heard anything.
The last few hours of the contest were the most fun of all. After the final 100/hour run of Europeans on 20m I was up on 15m digging out a few more South American multipliers when I kept hearing (and easily working) loud JA's off the back of the beam. I decided a good strategy might be to try to run JA's on 15m with the beam on South America. I did that for a little while but with no takers from South America I eventually just turned the beam to Japan. In a half-hour I worked about 50 very loud JA's, most reporting power of 50 watts or lower, many with 10 watts and even a few QRP stations! With the time running out I turned the beam back to the southeast and spent the last 30 minutes picking up the remaining Caribbean and Central American multipliers on 20m. The band was wide open and everyone was incredibly loud. Every continent except Africa and Australia was booming in, even with the attenuator on and the gain turned down. Most of the stations had huge pileups going but one way or another I managed to get through to most of the ones I needed. The last one went into the log at 2358z and then it was all over.
As one might expect, there were LOTS of high points on this outing:
- Setting up Friday afternoon in the unusually warm early spring sunshine.
- Working a handful of stations on four bands. The exclusive club: D4C JA1ELY JA1YPA JA3YBK KH7X KL7RA RT0C
- Working DXCC in a single weekend. Back in the day it took me three years to work 100 countries!
- Working several all-time-new-ones for DXCC: New Caledonia (FK8IL), Central Africa (TL0A), India (VU3DJQ), Cambodia (XU7ACY).
- Making the 10m contact with LT1F.
- Eating supper on Saturday night while listening to JT1CO run a huge pileup of stateside stations on 20m when suddenly he announces that he's going to 15m and gives the QRG. I hit the bandswitch and was the first to work him for a new mult on 15m (I had worked him the night before on 20m and 40m).
- Working Antarctica (again!). I caught VP8DMH Saturday night on 20m. I get a big kick out of making 'inter-polar' contacts and I've only ever done it twice before.
- Having almost all the bands open to somewhere at the same time. In the middle of the night, during the 0800z hour on Saturday, my log has four contacts in a row that go 15m-20m-40m-80m (Africa, Europe, Hawaii, Japan)
- Spending five futile minutes near the end of the contest shouting into a humongous pileup on YN2EA when a W2(?) gets through and after his contact tells the guy to 'listen up for the VE8 calling you'. I was so surprised I didn't have a chance to remember who it was but thanks for the multiplier!
- Having the presence of mind right after the contest to take advantage of the excellent conditions and the big antenna to work Maine and Rhode Island on digital for my Triple Play Award. I still need 2 more on CW and 3 more on digital but propagation-wise they're all easy ones (ND, SD and NE).
The only low-points:
- Spending almost an hour on Sunday morning calling V51YJ on 15m for an all-time-new-one. He never did hear me. Once again, that's for all the guys that spent time in the pileups unsuccessfully calling me this weekend. It usually goes both ways...
- Demobilizing the station during a surprise blizzard on Sunday night.
Class: SO Unlimited HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 36
Band QSOs Mults
160: 1 1
80: 16 9
40: 68 39
20: 984 96
15: 149 27
10: 1 1
Total: 1219 173 Total Score = 631,661
The short version: Wow!
Long version at http://ve8ev.blogspot.com
John - VE8EV