Digital Station

This is my portable digital radio station, as it is as of Sunday morning. I have Winlink Express, WSJTX, and JS8Call all running the KX3. Image captured with iPhone 13 Pro Max.

A week or so ago, I was motivated to get some of the digital modes operational on my portable station. I did not bring the Digirig Mobile that I specifically purchased for the Elecraft KX2/KX3 radios with me this trip. It was one of several things left behind because I simply did not have enough time to prepare for the trip. So, I did what I always do… I bought another module.

It is not actually a waste because I will put one in each of the KX3 and KX2 go-kits. Then there will not be a (significant) risk of leaving the module behind (again).

The WSJTX software gives access to the FT8 and FT4 modes, which are useful for quick exchanges such as those for a POTA or SOTA activation, or for a contest1. I have yet to use these modes for any of those things. But I do use them when home (in the radio noise) so I can play a little radio. I have yet to use FT8 for a park activation, although that is a thing.

JS8Call is a digital mode based on the FT8 engine, but permits more text than the quick exchange of the latter mode. That is, a full conversation contact is possible along with a lot more capability. This is a potential mode for emergency communications when voice operations are not possible or not advisable. I do use this mode to make contacts when at home and the noise is too much for me to hear other stations.

Both FT8 and JS8 are called weak signal modes because the computational engines are capable of extracting usable signals at the noise floor or below. This is amazing!

I spent a good part of Saturday getting everything running and testing the results. The main issue I encountered was a change in Windows 11 that treated the soundcard (the Digirig) as a DVD device with a data rate of 48KHz. I think the software was expecting a datarate of 44.1KHz (the CD rate).

Once I sorted this problem out, all three programs worked fine. I was able to send and receive email (Winlink) via HF radio. I was able to make contacts using both WSJTX and JS8Call modes. And these tasks were accomplished with the KX3 at five watts output into the Elecraft AX1/AXE antenna. The antenna is a tiny thing that I use when there is no room to deploy something larger. It is truly a compromise antenna. Yet I was able to accomplish my goals in a noisy environment using a compromise antenna and five watts.

The next step is to get the FLDIGI suite working on my Surface Go 2 and with the KX2/KX3 radios. This is another digital software package that has a lot of capability for many modes. It will be useful in an emergency setting when other means of communication (Internet, phones) are unavailable. But, for now, I want to spend time working with JS8 so I can learn its capabilities. I also need practice with Winlink so I can get around in it efficiently.

  • Setup of WSJTX and JS8Call are closely related (use the same engine). Once one of them is working, the odds are that the other will work with only some small adjustments.
  • Use the USB mode and not the DATA mode on the KX2/KX3 radios. That is what works best, at least for me.
  • The bitrate of the soundcard is a big deal. It took some hunting to find it and I did not see it documented anywhere else. The search engines failed me in that regard.
  • Getting VARA HF to work with the soundcard can also be a bit fiddly. The sure to pay attention to the ALC function of the radio (set the audio output of the soundcard or audio input the radio carefully). Any audio compression should be turned off. I suspect the same will be true of other modems (ARDOP, Packet, etc), although I have not tried them (yet).
  • If you find you do not have enough headroom with the audio input or the audio output, an adjustment to the soundcard levels is appropriate through the Windows Sound setup page. (Which one will depend on what version of Windows you are running.)
  • I am generally good at remembering how to do these configurations once I sort the approach out. However, it is probably a good idea to get the setup procedure recorded in one’s radio notes in case adjustments need to be made under the pressure of required operations.

That is my report for this little exercise. In total, I probably spent five or six hours fiddling with the equipment and software and another few hours playing with the radio. It was an intellectually challenging exercise because there are so many moving parts. But, it was still a good day.

I also had the chance to visit with my buddy in Montana, who decided to work on some of this as well.

Maybe some of these notes will help someone else over the hump. I know there was a lot of research to solve simple (ha) problems.

Life is good.

1Yes, some contests permit use of the FT8/FT4 digital modes.

Parks on the Air

Shot with the Fujifilm X100V.

A couple of weekends ago I decided it was time to not work all weekend. On Saturday morning, The Girl and I headed out, not knowing where I might end up. We walked for an hour out at Silver Saddle Ranch, then headed east on US 50. I was on the phone with my buddy Dick and indicated that I needed to get out and do something away from the house.

At first, I thought I would drive down to Yerington and activate the wildlife management area north of town. But, as I turned south on US 95, I decided that either Buckland Station or Ft. Churchill were both closer and needed to be activated.

Buckland Station won the coin toss. I parked the rig and looked for a place to deploy a wire. Seeing none, I retrieved the drive-on mast mount and the 10m SOTAbeams mast from the rig and set them up. I also retrieved the Elecraft KX3 and a small battery from the rig.

A little wider shot of the Buckland Station deployment. The KX3 is in the foreground and the SOTAbeams mast, random-wire antenna, and part of the drive-on mast are in the background. Shot with iPhone 13 Pro Max.
I used the Sagebrush Antenna deployed to near vertical with the distal end affixed to the top of the mast. The opposite end went to a cobrahead adapter and direct to the radio. I threw the counterpoise on the ground around the rig.

I sat down at my folding table with my back to the sun (it was chilly), started a log on my iPhone (HAMRS), and listened on 20m near the QRP watering hole of 14.060MHz. With nothing heard, I called QRL? (“Is the frequency in use?”) a couple of times, then hit the message button to transmit “CQ CQ POTA DE AG7TX AG7TX POTA K” a couple of times, then paused to listen for a caller.

The KX3 station setup at Buckland Station for a POTA activation. Shot with iPhone 13 Pro Max.
While the radio was sending my general call, I spotted myself on the POTA network. After a few minutes, the calls began to come in. I worked each station as I could and even managed a few DX (foreign country) contacts. The most memorable being an OH1 station located in Finland.

I worked the bands for an hour or so and made my quota for an activation. I was cold, so The Girl and I headed home after a brief pit stop.

The door of Buckland Station. This is what arriving travelers and Pony Express riders would have seen a hundred years ago. Shot with Fujifilm X100V at f/8 with Reggie’s Portra film simulation.
I woke Sunday morning again not wanting to spend the day working. So I puttered a bit over my morning coffee and then decided to get The Girl out to walk and do another POTA activation.

I grabbed a snack because my blood sugar has been falling unexpectedly, some water, and a battery for the radio. We loaded up into the rig and headed west to Spooner Summit. I pulled off onto the forest road and parked the rig at the staging area where I like to work.

The Girl and I then headed out to walk before I set up a radio. Again, I talked to my buddy in Montana as I walked. But I kept my eyes open for critters as I have seen a big coyote who is not afraid of humans several times.

She was ready to rest when we returned to the rig, so I gave her some water and put her in the 4Runner. She settled right down for a nap in the sun.

I retrieved the new line-throwing kit from the 4Runner, stretched out the line, and affixed the throw weight. After four or five throws, I was unable to hit my target branch. Instead of fumbling more, I retrieved the drive-on mast mount and the 10m mast from the rig and setup a wire antenna. I again used the Elecraft KX3 barefoot (10-15w of power) and set up my table and chair.

A wind had come up, maybe gusting to 10–15mph, but variable direction. It was kinda-sorta from the south, but was curling around to the point I could not get shelter.

So I put on my heavier hoodie, put my back to the wind (and the sun), and worked the radio. The higher bands have been good lately, so I started on 10m and worked my way down.

Again, it took an hour or hour-and-a-half to make my activation quota and work the bands dry. The sun was falling lower in the sky and I was cold, so I quit.

It did not take long to put away the station and get The Girl out for a last bit. She looked for critters and peed until I called her in and we got into the rig.

It was another good day and a good day for me to get outdoors. The Girl loved it, too.

I learned a few more things.

  • I need practice with the throwing kit. I suspect there is something of an art to using a throw weight and line to hit a particular target.
  • I need some kind of shelter for cool-weather activations. I looked at a fishing hut last year, but did not buy one. A small fishing hut that folds up would make a good operating shelter. I could deploy a heater (I have one) and place a mat for The Girl.
  • My principal reservation about a hut is the lack of windows. I like being outside because (in part) I like the sun and the light. I do not want my activation shelter to cut those things off.
  • I need the means to heat water and make coffee, tea, soup, or a hot meal. I have used the Trangia burner in another stove I have in my inventory. But it is not as handy as I want. Hence, I am working on an upgraded kit and some of the results are posted on this weblog.
  • The iPhone works for spotting myself and for logging, But I think a Rite-in-the-Rain notebook and pencil should be in my field kit. I am thinking again of reducing my dependence on technology, although it is good to be able to spot myself for SOTA/POTA activations.
  • HAMRS is well suited to logging POTA activations. It has features that display other activators and make it easy to log their information for park-to-park chasing.
  • I am not sure I ever documented my post-processing of POTA logs. Most of my activations are multiple parks, at least two. I have a couple of favorite places that are three or four park activations. That means the post-processing of my log requires some editing so that chasers get credit of more than one park. I also get credit for activating multiple parks.
  • The new field cooking kit is coming along. I will have the ability to make a hot drink or food in the field. This is a critical safety issue as hypothermia is real and it does not have to be very cold for it to strike. Hot food and drink are part of combating environmental dangers effectively.
  • I am really enjoying Morse Code. I still operate phone part of the time. But the ability to deploy a small radio kit and make contacts thousands of miles away with a few watts means everything is smaller, lighter, and simpler than a more powerful radio kit.

That is all I can think of. It was a good couple of days in the field. Life is good.

Before I left the park, I walked around Buckland Station for a few captures. This one is of the north-facing side of Buckland Station. Shot with the Fujifilm X100V at f/8 with Reggie’s Portra film simulation.

The Sagebrush Antenna and Self Care

Everything that is needed to operate on four of the high frequency amateur radio bands is in or next to this box. There is a radio, the Sagebrush antenna, a battery, headphones, and a couple of Morse Code keys.

During the latter part of last year and well into January of this year, I was working very hard and burning a lot of energy. After completing a report and giving a deposition, I was quite tired and near burning out. That did not stop the pressure, though, as there are several active projects still needing attention and deliverables are coming due. There was little time for my radios and I had to cancel my planned trip to Quartzite, Arizona.

I am making progress on the work. This week I was relieved of one of the deliverables due the end of this month. I made significant progress on the other two deliverables. The pressure lightened substantially.

However, over the last few weeks I decided that I had no choice but to take time off for some self care. I will not be productive if I burn out. I am close enough that I feel the pressure to chuck everything and go into hibernation mode.

As a result, I spent more time in the outdoors the last three weekends. The Girl and I are getting our miles in every day. I am taking a few minutes every day to meditate and pray. Although this week was an exception, I am getting a couple of strength training sessions in each week.

After our daily walks, if the weather is nice (and it has been), I setup one of my portable radios. The last couple of weeks, I had the Elecraft K1 out a couple of times. I am learning to use that radio. It is not a difficult radio to use, but there are a few things to learn about its operation.

I learned that it is a very good radio. The receiver is excellent and the operating controls are well thought out and work well. It is a fun unit to operate.

An even smaller radio is my Elecraft KX1. My unit operates on four bands — 20m, 30m, 40m, and 80m. It has an internal matching unit. It will run on a set of internal batteries or an external power source. It has an excellent receiver with both RF and AF gain controls and an adjustable filter.

Some days I setup a telescopic fiberglass mast and run a wire from near the top to the radio. The wire antenna connects directly to the radio. A counterpoise is thrown on the ground to provide the required wire to match the radiator.

You’ll have to look really hard, but there is an antenna in the sagebrush. Can you see it?

Friday I decided to deploy the Sagebrush Antenna. This unique antenna comprises the wire radiator from my KX1 kit (shown above) thrown across the top of whatever sagebrush is nearby. This deployment had the distal end in a sagebrush about six feet off the ground. The near end was about five feet above the ground, with the last bit sloped down to the radio, which sat on my knee. I threw the other part of the antenna (the counterpoise) on the ground in front of me.

By the time we finished our walk most of the SOTA activators had retired. Those I listened for could not be heard at my location. I listened for the few POTA stations that were active and heard an operator in Arkansas calling. Once a few strong stations worked him, I put out my callsign. After a couple of attempts, he heard me and sent part of my callsign with a question mark (asking me to fill my call).

About the time I heard him complete my call, he faded into the noise. I continued to listen a bit more, heard his signal come up and fade away again, then decided I would either have to wait or give up. Given I needed to return home for a phone call, I gave up. (I hate to give up!)

As I put away the station, the phone rang. My buddy Dick said “You’re 5-4 or 5-5 here, what are you running????”

“I’m running the KX1 with 3 watts.”

“You’re kidding!!! You’re booming in here. Did you hear him answer?”

“Yes, but then he faded and I could not copy the exchange.”

“Aw man, you had him… what antenna are you running?”

“I’m running the Sagebrush Antenna.”

“What?”

“The Sagebrush Antenna… I threw a wire over the top of the sagebrush.”

“Oh man, a wire on the ground and 3 watts?!?!”

We chatted a bit while I put things away (not a long process and I was almost done when the phone rang), then continued on the way home. I knew I could have worked that Arkansas activator if I had waited for him to come back up out of the noise. But I wanted to make my call before I ended the day.

Perhaps you can see the Sagebrush Antenna now?
In the end, whether I made the contact or not does not matter. What matters is that I took some time for myself, to do something for myself that is fun and engaging, and to move away from work for awhile. I spent time with my dog, with my friends, and with my radios. This is helping me to reduce my burn out and keep me healthy and productive. And it is fun to deploy a simple, small, low-power radio, particularly when using an antenna as esoteric as the Sagebrush Antenna. Can you see it?