Three Men, One Dog, One Mountain

I shot this image from the portable operating station for the Mount Davidson SOTA activation. The view was spectacular.

A few weeks ago, my friend and amateur operator suggested we do another Summits On The Air (SOTA) activation. He had chosen a mountain not far from Carson City.

Yesterday, Older Son and I had just started our walk with The Girl out at the Mexican Ditch Trail on Silver Saddle Ranch. I had a handheld radio with me (of course) and called another friend to see if he was walking his dog.

My SOTA-hunting friend responded to my call and we chatted about a group meeting he had been to when he asked if I was interested in the SOTA activation we discussed a few weeks ago.

“When would you like to do that?”

“How about today?”

I looked at Older Son, he nodded. “We just started walking The Girl. We’ll go pick up a sandwich, load up some radio equipment, and give you a heads-up.” We shortened our walk a little because I knew there would be plenty of exercise for everyone. On the way home, we stopped at Subway for a couple of sandwiches, then went home, ate, and gathered up my radio gear.

We met where the pavement ends on Goni Road. After a pause for an introduction and rough plan, we headed out with our friend in the lead. The first part of the road is well-maintained. But it turned to a trail after a mile or so.

The trail varied in condition but was not technically difficult, with the exception of one short segment. Just before we reached the aspen grove, there was a snowbank. At this time of year, the snow is very dense. I had some trepidation about it, watching the Scout cross gingerly. So, I headed down the trail and crossed the snow crabwise with little traction to steer or slow. I knew there was nothing to be gained by hitting the brakes except to exacerbate the slippage and find myself stuck sideways off the trail — or worse.

After traversing the snow, I knew there would be no going back that way for my 4Runner. Our friend called on the radio “We’ll find another way back. We have options.”

We crossed the intersection of Jumbo and Ophir Grades and he told us how the Bonanza writers got much of the history of the area right. Before long we started up the last bit of grade, which had a couple of rough places but nothing the 4Runner could not handle.

There is a turn-around/staging area a couple hundred yards from the summit of Mount Davidson. We pulled up there.

Older Son and I are setting up my portable vertical antenna for the Mount Davidson SOTA activation.
“Should we just haul gear up or go scout first?” he asked.

“I’m always in favor of scouting so there is a plan,” I suggested. So, we added a layer of clothing because the wind was fast and cold and started up the slope.

It is not a particularly difficult hike, but there is some elevation gain and many sharp rocks to deal with. I worried a little about The Girl, because she is sometimes not the brightest bulb in the box and could fall on some of the steeper sections. But she proved to be mostly careful and does have full-time four-wheel drive. She needed a little encouragement/help at a couple of locations and I kept an eye on her the remainder of time lest she wander off and fall.

The summit of Mount Davidson is interesting. There are remnants of a couple of antennas up there, perhaps from either temporary installations or old repeater locations. But of significant interest is an old flagpole that was first installed in the late 1800s. At some point, the pole bent about 10-15 feet above the base and was repaired by placing a second pole (or the remnants of the first) adjacent to the base and tying them together. There are many names and dates embossed on the steel of the flagpole. We spent a few minutes looking at that and then planning our station.

We then humped it back down the hill, retrieved the appropriate equipment from the rigs, and hauled it all back up the hill. Older Son and I began assembling my antenna (a vertical all-band base-loaded whip with a lot of ground radials) while the third component of our little company assembled the station.

The Girl stayed on overwatch and made sure no gnarly squirrels or other riffraff ambushed the company.

We tuned up the antenna for the 40-meter band and gathered around the radio. Fortunately, I brought log materials and Older Son brought water, so we were ready to go.

This is the operating point for the Mount Davidson SOTA activation. The Mount Davidson repeater is in the background.
As we prepared to begin operations, Older Son pulled a packet of Lorna Doones from his kit. Before he could get the wrapper opened, The Girl was sitting in front of him in her please sit, looking at him, and humming. We know what that means, “I can has cookie???”

Of course. We all shared some of the cookies.

Our leader called CQ-SOTA several times and got an answer from a British Columbia station. I had log duty and made the log entry. He called several more times and then offered me a shift on the radio.

The Girl came back in from perimeter duty and sat next to us, shivering a little. Older Son called her over to snuggle and warm up. We had some sun and shelter from the wind, so it was cool but not cold.

While I called CQ-SOTA, he logged into the SOTA website and “spotted” us. That means he logged an entry that we were working the Mount Davidson SOTA site so other operators could find us. I then proceeded to make five contacts, some of them contacts I had made before, some of them new contacts. I needed four contacts to log the activation (and get the points).

I handed the microphone back to our leader and took up my position with the log.

Not long after he took up operations, The Girl sat on a flat spot and looked at Older Son and I. I know my dog. She was sending a definite message. She said “I’m done now. The perimeter is patrolled and there is nothing to do. I’m ready to go home. Why are we still here? Don’t you understand, I’m done — I’m ready to go home. Take me home.”

He made another contact before the battery went dry. He and Older Son started over the hill to retrieve my battery. I stayed on the summit with The Girl and the gear. It was not long before their voices grew louder. I knew they were returning.

“We’re losing daylight,” our leader said, “I hate to give up, but we better tear down and pack out.”

On the way down from Mount Davidson, we paused at potential operating area to look back where we had been. The staging area is to the left of the rocky outcrop and we operated from near the peak.
On the way down from Mount Davidson, we paused at potential operating area to look back where we had been. The staging area is to the left of the rocky outcrop and we operated from near the peak.[/caption]It did not take long to pack up the gear and haul it down to the staging area. It was portable operations, after all. I have enough repetitions with my gear that I know what order to do things and how to pack it up. Before long we were headed back down the trail. At the Jumbo-Ophir junction, we turned east toward Virginia City on the Ophir Grade.

We chatted over the radio now and again as out leader pointed out various sights along the way. At the bottom of the hill we pulled up. “I’m whooped,” he said, “coffee will have to be another time.”

We said our goodbyes, he teased me about “stealing the glory” on this one, and we headed down the hill.

I still wanted coffee and pie, so Older Son and I drove through Carson City to Bodine’s Casino and hit the restaurant there. I like it because the coffee is good and they have a wonderful berry cobbler. I was also hungry, so I ordered off the plate menu (and bargain) and gobbled my food. It was a lot of work in the cool air to set up and run that SOTA activation.

Filled with warm food, coffee, water, and cobbler, Older Son and I headed home to pack it in. We got home about 2200h. It was a good day.

Meanwhile…

This is my view from one of my favorite portable operations locations.

To say that I have been absorbed the last few weeks would be a minor understatement. After my amateur operator’s license was issued (finally) I have been spending much of my time learning how to use the equipment and, well, operating.

On weekends I generally drive up into the Pine Nut Mountains where I have a wonderful place to setup my portable radio and operate outdoors. This satisfies me in so many ways. I really like to be outside, but I need to be intellectually engaged or I chafe with boredom. The radio provides that engagement and I spend a lot of my time listening and a little bit of my time talking.

It is difficult to operate my radio here at the house. There is so much interference from as yet unidentified sources that I can hear only the strongest signals. There is a local net that meets six days each week on the 10m band for a local chat. Because most of the signals are so strong, I am able to participate in that meeting. Yet I still cannot hear several of the stations that regularly participate.

Aside: A net is a gathering of operators at a particular time on a particular frequency. They are usually directed, that is coordinated, by a net control operator who acts as a master-of-ceremonies to ensure that the conversation is orderly and that stations are not transmitting at the same time.

Nets have many purposes — some are informational, some are rag-chews, and some are for passing traffic between stations to be delivered to other places. They can be a lot of fun because of the organization and the chance to operate the radio.

Most of my voice operations are on the weekends when I’m up in the mountains where it is quiet (both in the audio and the radio sense of the term). I really like that.

The image is from one of my favorite locations. I expect to spend many weekends at this location and others, operating my radio outdoors and enjoying it a great deal.

Playing Radio

Lucas the Spider is one of my favorite cartoon characters. Therefore, I have a plushie at my workstation.
A friend asked about my weblog a few days ago. It reminded me that I need to give some attention to this space as well as the other things I do. Of course, I was locked out of my own weblog. The overwatch software was doing its job.

My call sign was issued on 15 April, finally. I guess whatever list on which there was a name similar to mine was reviewed and my application for a amateur radio operator’s license was approved. I downloaded the PDF of my license, printed a copy (both for the station and my wallet), and took it over to FeDeX Office to have it laminated. I carry the wallet card and the larger version is on my radio table.

That is when the work started! Assembling a working station is a significant task. There is a lot more to it than buying an appropriate radio. There is a workspace to set up that can accommodate the radio and its support hardware (mostly a power supply, but a computer is helpful too). There is at least one antenna to set up. For the high frequency bands, there is a lot of spectrum to cover and do-all antennas are not always the best (or even a good) solution.

I have a random wire (well, pseudo-random) stapled to the top of my fence and fed with a matching transformer. It is working OK for local communications (I participate in the daily 10m net) and for digital contacts on the 40m band.

Oh, I forgot to mention that I earned my license at the bottom of the sunspot cycle. That means that propagation is about as bad is it gets at this time. The bad news is that making distant contacts will be challenging. The good news is that it only gets better from here!

I have been using a handheld radio to talk to the local VHF nets. There is a repeater located in line-of-sight to my home and five watts is enough to open the repeater so I can participate — if I stand in the right place in the house!

I bought an external antenna and yesterday afternoon was spent working out the install, procuring the materials for the install, and then installing the Diamond X50-A VHF/UHF antenna on my roof. That meant buying a ladder, hauling all the stuff up the ladder, being careful not to fall off the ladder (or the roof), and completing the installation. I tested it with my backup handheld radio (I would rather blow a $50 handheld than my desktop station) and was able to open the repeater and get confirmation that my signal was received.

In the time between the submittal of my application and the issuing thereof I spent a Saturday afternoon in an antenna design class offered by the Northern Nevada ARES coordinator. It was a good class, I learned quite a bit, and the result was my random wire antenna. A better replacement will follow as I work out the next step for my station.

Last Saturday afternoon I sat a class (the same instructor) on use of a software called fldigi. It is actually a suite of programs that work together for both digital communications and for transferring files between stations and/or via a net of stations. This software is used by some ARES units for coordination of traffic during emergencies. Therefore, I wanted to learn how to use the software.

The theory is done. Now I need to get some practical experience with operating the software and my station. The instructor is planning a local net for his students to practice over VHF. Therefore, I was highly motivated to get an antenna up so I can run VHF from my station. That task was done yesterday. I will set up my backup radio to run VHF from my station and then get my MacBook Pro talking to the radio so I can run the fldigi suite and get on the air.

In the meantime, I have playing radio a little. I am able to participate in the afternoon 10m net. Most of the stations can hear me and I can hear most of them. I am able to make some contacts using one of the digital modes, FT8, which is a weak-signal mode. I have a significant noise issue here at the house, so I have been operating portable in the hills east of Carson City on the weekends. I like being outside. It is quite there, both from an auditory perspective and from a radio perspective. I can hear much better. I am able to check in to the noon 40m net that operates out here in the west and was able to check in to the High Noon Net that operates from Colorado (I think). This is good operating practice for me and is building confidence that I can actually get out, be heard, and hear other operators.

There is more and I will write about it. The image this morning is from my archive. Lucas the Spider is an animated character I follow on Instagram and on YouTube. He is a funny little guy and is one of the few plushies that I would have. He is perched on top of one of my speakers to remind me to have fun and be kind.

American Kestrel

The American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) is the smallest raptor in North America.

I am still waiting for my amateur radio operator’s license to be issued. My name is similar to one on an “alert list” so the automatic system pulled my application and put it in queue for review by a real person. The estimated time is weeks. To say that I am a little bummed by this outcome would be an understatement.

But I have plenty to do. I am working on my station and there is a lot to do to set up an HF station. I have equipment, but antennas are an issue. I built a simple 40m dipole and erected it in my backyard. The matching transformer arrived last week (I will learn to build them as well), so I need to attach it to the mast and then tune the antenna to resonate at the middle of the 40m band.

In the meantime, I just put up a random wire antenna, stapled to the top of the fence along my backyard. I ran the feed line into my workroom and attached it to my transceiver last night. Reception is better than with the previous instance and I can hear traffic on the 80m and 40m bands. The bands are not open much right now because we are at sunspot minimum and so there is not much energy to drive the ionosphere, which is where much of the long-distance propagation occurs.

Morse code and the digital modes are going to be the mechanic for making contacts until the Sun becomes more active. I decided to make a real effort to learn Morse code while I wait for my license. I also will work on my portable station so I can operate away from town and all the noise here. I have plenty of access to quiet areas with elevation so low-power operation is viable. Besides that, I will get away from the house, be outside, and can camp a little. Both The Girl and I will like that.

There is plenty of other work to do, too. I have a bunch of images to review and process. The little raptor above was one of my recent captures. He/she flew up near me and posed prettily while I ran the camera. The Carson River floodplain was where I saw my first Kestrel and I see them often. They are furtive, though, and do not often provide me much time to capture an image.

I am enjoying the better weather lately. The Girl and I are walking the Carson River daily and the trees are about to leaf out. I hear blackbirds calling, woodpeckers drumming, and the geese are still honking. The river is up a little as the snow begins to melt and it looks like there will be abundant water this year. I heard one of the ARES members talking about releases from Lake Lahontan in anticipation of snowmelt and they are spilling excess water into the desert down near Fallon.

The Girl just wandered in. She is looking for breakfast and an outing. I need to retrieve the Fuji’s batteries from the charger and prepare it for another wander. I want a bite, too, but do not feel like cooking this morning. Subway has some decent breakfast sandwiches, so I think I will wander over there and pick up something. Then we can drive out to river, enjoy some sunshine, and spend some time outdoors. Perhaps Mother Nature will bring me a treat.

Amateur Radio Service Examinations

These license manuals occupied most of my off-time for the last several weeks.
Several weeks ago I was sharing breakfast with a friend when he mentioned that he was preparing to sit the Amateur Radio Service Technician Class examination. He had purchased a software defined radio receiver and found himself an Elmer (radio slang for mentor). I was intrigued.

Several years ago I picked up a copy of the ARRL Technician Class license manual. It occurred to me that if the mobile telephone system were to go offline that I would have a difficult time getting word out to my family that I was alive and well. I knew that unless something deeply catastrophic occurred the amateur radio bands would be open and that I could get a message out to my family via that avenue.

But, life being what it was, I set aside the manual and did not pursue the license required to operate radio equipment on the amateur bands. My friend’s revelation motivated me.

“I’ll do it with you,” I said. I reflected my initial interest from a few years before. I also mentioned that I played with radios when I was a teenager and remembered something about them.

I quickly learned that my license manual was out of date. I ordered a fresh copy and began working in my old copy. When the new version arrived, I picked up the thread.

After a week, I decided I could probably do enough work to pass the General Class examination as well. General Class privileges include a lot more of the HF (high frequency) bands. While I was buying books, I went ahead and ordered the Amateur Extra Class license manual as well. I knew that the questions were valid for another year, so I thought I would work on that after working through the other two levels.

About the end of February I attended my first SIERA radio club meeting. The exam coordinator belongs to this club and invited me down to visit. While I was visiting him, I mentioned that I thought I might attempt all three examinations. He said “That’s very difficult. I can be done, but I don’t recommend it.”

A few minutes later, the club secretary wandered by. “What was your name?” she asked. I told her. “You are going to attempt all three examinations in March?”

“Well, yes I am” was my response. “I might not pass all three, but I think I’m going to try.” So, my intent was logged into the club minutes. There’s nothing like a little pressure, is there?

The technical level for the General class is a bit greater than the Technician level, but it was not awful. I started work on the General Class material when I started passing the Technician practice tests with scores in the 80 percent range.

A couple of weeks ago I found myself passing the General Class practice tests in the 80-90 percent range. So, I thought to myself, I might as well start on the Extra Class materials.

Those materials were quite a lot more technical. There was a lot of basic circuit theory, radio equipment theory, antenna theory, propagation theory, and operational policy. The Extra Class examination comprises 50 questions; the other two classes only 35. The pass rate for all of them is 74 percent.

I failed my first practice examination. “I don’t know if I can be ready for this in time,” I thought. Yet, I continued plugging along, working through the material, working all the example problems, and preparing for the next practice test.

I passed the next practice test. My score was not great, but it was sufficient to pass. The HamStudy website and iPad application provided a lot of practice. The app indicated that I had seen about 65 percent of the questions in the pool and my aptitude was less than 50 percent. I still had work to do and only a week to get it done.

I kept after the material. Once I made it through the book, I continued using the Hamstudy flashcards and practice tests. A few days before the examination date I was passing the Amateur Extra practice tests with results in the 80–90 percent range. I stopped trying to learn new material and spent my last few days reviewing, adding to the holes in my knowledge, and practicing problems.

Saturday morning, I met my friend for an early breakfast. “Are you ready?” he asked. “About as ready as I can be,” I responded. We continued chatting about the radios and the world over breakfast and then headed for the venue.

We gathered with a fairly large number of other attemptees. After a few minutes, Greg, the coordinator, called us to attention and began handing out the paperwork. There were some forms to complete and then we were to hand in our forms and pay the examination fee.

One of the proctors looked at me, “Are you the guy attempting the trifecta?”

“Yep, that would be me.”

“There are about 12-hundred questions in that pool. There’s no way anyone could memorize that many questions,” he remarked.

“Well, I studied all the material,” I responded.

“Good luck…”

The first exam was distributed. I wrote my test number on my answer sheet and opened the examination. Ten minutes later I handed in my examination. Then I waited while the proctors reviewed my answers. The second proctor looked over the shoulder of my inquisitor, then gave me a thumbs up and took my answer page to check.

A few minutes later I was handed the second examination (General Class) and answer sheet. I repeated the process. I spent a little more time on the General Class examination because I wanted to be sure I caught all the words. I handed it in after maybe 20 minutes.

A few minutes later I received another thumbs-up. I waited for the third examination, knowing it would be more challenging. Soon I had the examination booklet and answer page in hand. Again I filled out the required information and opened the examination.

I do not know how long that exam took me. I know that one of the new proctors (they had two new guys sitting in for experience) was watching me carefully. It was not that he thought I was cheating, he was curious about my approach to the work.

In the 50 questions, there were some I could not remember. (Some of the material is rote memorization.) There were quite a few soft-balls in the lot that were easy to answer. There were a number that I knew, not just from remembering, but I new the material.

I handed in my exam. Again, I got a thumbs-up from the second proctor as the first finished correcting my examination. I did all three classes in one sitting. I was told that does not happen often.

The man watching me smiled. He said “I knew you were going to pass the last examination. You were very focused on the work. Congratulations.”

I am an engineer. Most of my life has been spent figuring out ways to solve problems. Some of them are amenable to mathematical solution. Others require a more intuitive approach. All are based on my understanding of math, physics, and chemistry. This exercise in the Amateur Radio Service licensing examinations was no different. They were not as difficult as my engineering license exams, nor my Master or Ph.D. exams. The Extra Class examination was challenging and there was a real risk I might not pass.

But, I did. I was reminded of an aphorism another operator shared with me. “Do you know what the call the person who graduates at the bottom of their medical class… doctor.”

All I had to do was pass. Once my license is issued, then the practicals begin. I have to learn to operate the radio in real space, not in book space.

I am pleased the ordeal is over. I am looking forward to the issuance of my license and call sign. Then I can operate my radios. It is fun stuff.