Monday, June 20, 2011

XK1T - Snake Eyes

Every time I activate a rare island in the Arctic I always remember to give a large part of the credit to luck.  Bad weather, either on the ground or especially in space, can scuttle the plans of even the most well organized expeditions.  On our trip to Tent Island (IOTA NA-193) this time luck was definitely not on our side!

Planning for an activation of NA-193 began almost a year ago.  Herschel was the only island in the Yukon Territory Group and it had been activated three times before.  Despite the activity, demand for the group had increased over time and this year it landed back on the official IOTA "Most Wanted" list.  Herschel Island is a bit far from here so I began studying the coastline with Google Earth and the official Canadian government mapping data.  I quickly found Tent Island which was just a few kilometres inside the Yukon border and only 130 kilometres (by air) from home!

Gerry, VE8GER, has a 19' boat and our original plan was for a summer trip to the island during the IOTA contest in July.  Gerry happened to make a trip up that way last summer and reported that in addition to very shallow water the area was inhabited by thick swarms of ferocious mosquitoes!  We quickly decided that a snowmobile trip in the spring would be a far better idea and began to make plans accordingly.  As spring drew nearer, however, we just couldn't fit a trip into our schedules and had to come up with a third option.  We would go by boat in early June when the water levels would be highest and the mosquitoes would (hopefully) not be out yet.

It was a hot, sunny day when we set sail for Tent Island.  We spent the afternoon packing the equipment and loading the boat and by 5pm we were underway for what was expected to be a four hour cruise.  The route to Tent Island took us down the Mackenzie River through a 120km long maze of channels in the river delta followed by a 35km stretch across the aptly-named Shallow Bay on the Arctic Ocean. 

Tugboats and barges along the river as we head north towards the Arctic Ocean.

We made good time through the river channels but once we arrived at Shallow Bay our luck started to change.  We took this part of the trip very seriously as there have been many fatalities over the years with boaters running aground out in the bay miles from shore.  Despite several attempts we could not find deep enough water to get out into the bay.  After several close calls we decided to back-track and head an hour further north towards Langley Island and try to cross the bay from there.  By this time the weather had turned cold and cloudy, a fog had rolled in, and there were two-foot swells rolling down the bay.  By GPS and depth soundings we picked our way between the islands and finally made it out onto the bay.  The heavy seas and fog made for slow going and there was rarely more than four feet of water under the keel all the way across.  The swells were frequently breaking over the bow but we made steady progress.  Shortly after midnight the fog lifted, the sun came out, and we caught our first view of Tent Island in the distance.  Even that close to our goal we were still not sure we would be able to land.  We tried several different approaches to the island that were all too shallow but eventually we found our way in and made landfall on the east side of the island.  Two huge driftwood logs had blown up on shore and made for a perfect place to pitch the tent and provide anchors for the tower.  We spent the next three hours unloading the boat and making camp.  Our tent was a huge 12'x14' canvas wall tent and we took our time to make sure it was well secured.  We were both well aware that the two big logs we were anchoring the tent to did not just fall out of the sky!  When a storm blows in off the Arctic Ocean the surge can go several hundred metres inland and being only 2 metres above sea level it was obvious that anything on Tent Island could easily be washed away.

Setting up camp under the midnight sun at Tent Island, Yukon.

The following morning was a beautiful, calm, sunny day as we worked on assembling the tower, yagi, and HF station.  Luck was still not on our side, though.  The yagi had been strapped to the side of the boat and the heavy seas coming across the bay the night before had filled the traps with water.  We spent the next two hours disassembling the antenna and taking apart the traps to dry the coils.  Just after midnight zulu we finally had the antenna up and working and got on the air. 

Yagi all dried out, stood up, and ready to get on the air!

Conditions were only fair the first night.  After working North American sunset and some Pacific contacts we turned our attention over the pole to Europe.  More bad luck.  Only a handful of Scandinavian and Russian stations were making it through.  We found out later that despite the promising auroral forecast, a solar coronal mass ejection and several small solar flares had conspired to keep the K-index at 2 or higher.  We shut down at one in the morning that day with only 300 contacts in the log.

The next day was windy, cloudy and cool.  The K-index was at 3 and we limped along until late afternoon when the propagation gave out entirely.  I switched to CW and called CQ for over an hour with only 4 replies!  Fortunately, I had also brought along my portable satellite gear and worked many stations via AO-51, SO-50, and AO-27 satellites.

Making our own propagation via amateur radio satellite. 

Things eventually picked up during NA sunset and then improved steadily all night.  I had high hopes that we were finally going to get a big opening to Europe so while Gerry worked the early risers I took a nap and planned to come on at 0600z and run as long as I could.  I dozed and listened to Gerry making slow, steady progress with what sounded like an unruly pileup.  This was his first experience running with a big pileup and I thought about relieving him early but he was holding his own.  I decided it would be better to rest up so I could focus on rate later on. 

VE8GER running his first pileup and doing a damn fine job!

Once again, though, lady luck spat in our eye.  I got up around midnight and took over right about the time we ran out of propagation to Europe.  I was expecting the band to stay open all night but now the only Europeans making it through were weak and watery and couldn't hear us at all.  I stayed at it for several hours and put a few hundred JA's in the log but that was it.  Around four in the morning the generator ran out of gas, the wind came up, and it started to rain.  I went to bed happy that we were at least starting to make some progress and was sure that propagation would be even better tomorrow.

First thing the next morning Gerry was woken by a crash as the flapping tent had pushed the watt meter off top of the amplifier.  I started to come around when he came back in from starting the generator, dripping wet from head to toe.  The wind and rain had continued all night and water was running into the tent from numerous places.  Upon trying the radio we found that the rain had soaked the traps again and the SWR was off-scale-high.  We decided the best course of action would be to pack up the radio gear for safekeeping and wait for the winds and rain to die down so we could fix the antenna.  I felt better after the gear was safely stowed but conditions continued to deteriorate.  A support for the corner of the tent let loose and we struggled in the wind and rain to get it retied.  Worse still was the ground.  When we were setting up we found that the permafrost was only about six inches below the surface.  With the heavy rainfall the ground was now becoming quickly saturated.  Puddles started appearing in the tent as the ground under the tarpaulins kept getting squishier.  Soon everywhere you stood a puddle would quickly form around your feet.  Not yet willing to give up, I kept making satellite contacts from inside the tent, but things were not looking good.  Around four in the afternoon I went outside and was horrified to discover the boat had come partially untied and was threatening to wash up on the beach.  Having high seas push the boat up onto the beach and stranding us was my biggest fear!  Worse still, it had dragged the rope across our fuel cache knocking over several gas cans which were now leaking our precious fuel!  I hollered for Gerry and we spent the next hour repositioning the boat and getting it safely re-tied.

Once the boat was secured I surveyed our situation.  The storm was not showing any signs of letting up.  Our campsite had turned into a swamp and was well on its way to turning into a lake.  Even if the rain stopped right away we would still have to abandon the camp site and (maybe) find a better place to pitch the tent.  The yagi was still out of service until we could take it down and dry out the traps, and if we moved the tent we'd need to relocate the tower as well.  We were both soaked to the skin and there were limited prospects of getting dry any time soon.  I suggested to Gerry that maybe we should think about packing up and heading home. 

Our perfect campsite transformed into a swamp and was now becoming a lake!

We kicked around the options and decided that there were only two.  Either way we had to tear everything down and load up the boat and then we could either go home -or- we could wait out the storm in the boat, try to find a new campsite, and start all over.  Given the conditions, finding a better spot seemed unlikely.  Even if the rain quit right away it would still be days before everything (including ourselves!) dried out.  The wind was pushing the water into the bay against the river current so the water levels were up.  We decided to get while the gettin' was good.  Gerry and I flopped around in the mud and rain for the next couple of hours tearing everything down and loading up the boat.  We pushed off around 9PM and after an hour of pounding through the three and four foot swells on Shallow Bay we were safely back into the river channels and headed for home. 

Final QSO total was only 830, fairly evenly split between North America, Europe, and Asia.  Of those, 35 were on satellite and 5 on CW.  Better luck next time, I hope!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

XK1T Update: Back on dry land

Had to cut the expedition short and abandon the island as a storm came in off the Arctic Ocean early this morning with high winds and torrential rainfall.  Details to follow in the morning but we made it back, soaked to the skin and chilled to the bone, but nevertheless safe and sound.

John VE8EV

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

XK1T - Update

We didn't get nearly as much prep time as we wanted due to busy schedules leading up to our trip.  We'll start packing gear and loading the boat in the morning (Wednesday) and we'll see how it goes.  When we're ready to go, we'll go!

Weather and propagation (aurora) are both predicted to be marginal but at least there's no snow in the forecast.  We had snow almost every day last week but today it's +22C.  Just depends whether the wind is blowing in off the Arctic Ocean or not.

As with all my previous trips we have a very detailed list of equipment to pack and a spacious 16'x20' tent to operate from so once we arrive on the island we'll be good to go.  It's about a four hour trip from town out to the island.

I'll update this post right before we leave.

John - VE8EV