AAR: Blue Slip Tower Site POTA, K-11225, 08 March 2024

My pack and radio kit for the K-11225 Blue Slip Tower Site activation. Shot with iPhone 13 Pro Max.

When I went to bed Thursday night, I was pretty sure that I wanted to get out and activate a park. I had my eye on Blue Slip Tower Site State Conservation Area for a week or so. It was unactivated and I did not have any first activations to my credit.

After dealing with my morning duties and getting some food at Rosie Jo’s Diner, I fed The Girl, gathered up my radio bag and KX2 shack-in-a-bag, and headed out to the rig. I put the location of the park into my iPhone and we headed out. Too late I realized that I had not brought a camera with me. But, there is always the camera in my iPhone.

The drive out took about an hour. I had posted my activation so hunters would know I would be there. I was not sure if I would have mobile phone service, but should not have been. There are two cell towers on the hilltop as well as the fire watch tower.

When I arrived at the site, the gate was closed but not locked. It was posted, though, that unauthorized vehicles were not allowed on the access road. There was not a no trespassing sign, however. There should not be — it is public land and a conservation area open to hunting.

The Girl on Overwatch. Shot with iPhone 13 Pro Max.
I got The Girl out the rig, put my radio and antenna bags into my pack, and grabbed the SOTAbeams 10m Travel Mast from the back of the rig. It was a bit of a struggle to keep her out of the mud, but she complied.

The hump up the access road to the top of the hill was neither long nor too taxing. It was a nice climb through the woodlot with a lot of birds calling just ahead of us. The Girl kept an eye open for the dreaded bushytail, not wanting to let one sneak up on us. She also kept an eye on me, I noticed. I had to call her back in a couple of times because she tends to range out a 75 meters if I do not keep her reeled in.

The fire watch tower at Blue Slip Tower Site. Shot with iPhone 13 Pro Max.
As mentioned above, I needed not worry about mobile phone signal because there are two cell towers on top of the hill. I had a good signal. I was tempted to climb the fire watch tower and operate near the top, but I worried that Sera might not pay attention and fall. So, I elected to sit on one of the footings and use the structure to support my antenna.

Although the wire is not visible, the SOTAbeams 10m Travel Mast that supports it certainly is. I affixed the mast to the tower leg. The antenna is an end-fed random wire about 28ft long. Shot with iPhone 13 Pro Max.
It did not take long to deploy the antenna. I considered using the end-fed half-wave for this activation, but decided that the slightly shorter end-fed random wire fit the setting better. I used a cobrahead (binding post adapter) affixed directly to the Electaft KX2 and threw the counterpoise wire out in the grass.

I fastened my kneeboard to my leg and set the rig on it. I grabbed a spare battery (lesson learned) and set it behind the little rig. The Girl settled into a spot in the grass to keep overwatch. I tuned the radio to the 30m band and selected 10.111MHz as my operating frequency. After listening a couple of minutes, I sent QRL? (is the frequency in use) and listened. I sent it again and listened again.

Nothing heard, so I set the radio to call CQ POTA DE AG7TX K and repeat while I opened the web browser on my iPhone and posted my spot. After a few cycles I checked the Reverse Beacon Network (again on my iPhone) and noticed that one of the spotting stations heard me. I knew I was getting out.

About that time the first call came in and I began working stations. The 30m band actually produced quite a few contacts, especially given I was running QRP (5 watts; low power). I worked stations to the east, mostly.

In the middle of my operation, a rancher drove up in his truck. “Did you see a cow come up here?” he called.

“Nope, nothing here.” I pointed out he had something hung under the passenger side of his rig so he got out to clear it. I sent AS AS (stand by) and chatted for just a few seconds before wishing him luck finding his missing cow. I then returned my attention to the radio as he drove off down the hill.

My Elecraft KX2 deployed on my kneeboard and ready to rock and roll. Shot with iPhone 13 Pro Max.
When that fishing hole was fished out, I moved to the 20m band and repeated the process. Twenty meters provided a lot more action and I worked a pretty good pileup until the calls thinned out. By that time I had about 30 calls in my log, so my activation was made. The skies were quite gray and I had missed some rain by only a few minutes. I really thought it might rain again.

I elected to move up to the 17m band, found an open frequency, and called a few times. Seventeen meters was quite a bit more noisy that the previous two bands. I figured I might take a call or two and then call it a day. I was starting to get cold and was ready for some food. I worked a couple of stations and then called QRT and shut off the radio.

In the end, I collected about 30 contacts and one DX station in Italy. It was a good day.

It did not take long to recover the station. The Girl and I enjoyed the walk back down the hill. The gate was open, so I left it. I was taught to leave gates in the condition I found them.

As I loaded The Girl and my kit into my rig, the rancher drove up.

“Did you find your cow?”

“Yes! She was stuck between two trees and calving! I managed to get the calf out, but now I need to get a chainsaw to free the cow.”

“Good luck!” I called and watched him hurry off to his place to get the tools needed to free his cow. It reminded me of the so many times I worked around the farm when I was a young man. Those are good memories. It was good work.

On the way home I stopped a Hucklebuck BBQ for a bite. The place is billed as the best BBQ around. They were not kidding — the brisket is the best I have had since I left Texas. I left warm and full and even brought the dog tax to The Girl.

I do not have a long list of lessons learned from this expedition. There were things I might have done differently, but they were not big changes. This one was pretty routine.

Life is good.

Parks on the Air AAR — Niangua State Recreation Area (K-10214)

The contact map from my activation of K-10214, Niangua SCA.

Wednesday morning I knew that I would have a hydraulic model running for several hours later in the day. After a couple of test runs, I started the first full run and sat at the computer for a few minutes, watching for an error/warning and listening to the fans run.

That was not going to do. So I looked at the POTA.app map to see what nearby parks I have not yet activated. I found a small conservation area (Niangua State Conservation Area, K-10214) about 45-minutes out and decided that would do. The sun had come out and I wanted to be outdoors.

I got The Girl ready and we walked out normal loop. I stuffed her into the rig while I went upstairs to retrieve my radio bag. Then we were off.

I called my buddy Dick on the way and we chatted about radio stuff until I got near where I thought I should exit the Interstate (dead reckoning). I pulled off the highway and looked at the map on my iPhone. My intuition was correct — I had exited on my turn instinctively.

So we drove the few short miles to the parking area, where I parked the rig and got out to survey. I decided to pull the rig forward a few feet and deploy the drive-on mast mount. I then retrieved the antenna bag from the back of the rig and the SOTAbeams 10m travel mast. I selected my end-fed half-wave antenna from the kit and the matching transformer.

This was my operating position and station for the K-10214 activation. The KX2 is a great radio and the Begali Traveller key outstanding.
The radio was the Elecraft KX2 barefoot and I affixed the matching unit directly to the radio. I draped a short counterpoise wire off the front of the rig and connected it to the radio. I thought about using the factory paddles, but decided that I wanted the better feel of the Begali Traveller set.

Setup time was about 20-minutes, with some of that spent hunting the antenna bag in the back of the rig. Hmmmph…

I listened on the 10m band for a few minutes and checked the spots. One other activator was working 10m. So I decided to try. I picked a frequency, called QRL (is the frequency in use?), and listened. Nothing heard, so I punched the memory button and started calling while I spotted myself on the Internet.

After calling a few minutes there was no response. The 10m band was not open (for me). I listened for a couple of minutes on the 12m band and heard other stations operating, but every time I picked a frequency someone started calling.

“?#%@$# that” I thought, “I’ll just move to 15m.” So, I did.

I setup near the 21.060 QRP (low power) watering hole, listened, called QRL? again, and started calling while I respotted myself on the Internet.

In just a couple of minutes the callers started trickling in. What followed was about 1.75 hours of working stations. The 15m band provided a few contacts, then the 17m band filled out my quota. I worked both until I fished each hole dry.

Then I switched to the 20m band. I then spent the next hour working an almost steady pile-up of callers. About five minutes into the 20m band, my KX2 suddenly turned itself off. It would not restart.

“Battery died!” I thought. I dashed to the drivers side of my rig and grabbed the spare KX2 battery. I dashed back to the radio and plugged in the spare. I turned the radio back on and finished working my buddy Dick (he was the contact I was working when the battery died).

K7ULM? BAT DIED” I sent. He repeated his exchange and I logged the contact.

I had noticed that the KX2 was only putting out about 5-6 watts although I had it set for 10 watts. The battery was running low and I did not realize it. Fortunately I had a ready spare and it took only a few seconds to grab it and be running again.

I was logging on my iPhone (HAMRS), which works for me when I am in the field. I saw a text message banner pass at the top of the screen. It was my buddy Dick who said “20m is not working very well today…”

The drive-on mast mount was made by a maker friend, Tim W7ASY. I used the 10m SOTAbeams Travel Mast to deploy my 40m end-fed half-wave antenna for this activation.
“Ha!” I thought, funny guy.

The contact counter on my logging software said I had more than 65 contacts. I had worked through the pile-up, catching a fragment of a call or getting lucky when an operator called in the clear (between jumbles). My brain was pretty fried after working on the hydraulic model and then a number of big pile-ups.

I decided i had enough. The frequency was quiet — no callers. I sent DE AG7TX QRT SK (my call sign and I am signing off). Another caller appeared, so I worked that operator. (He was loud; it was an easy exchange.) I sent QRT again and turned off the radio.

I finished with 68 contacts in the log. I was the sixth activator of the park and the first code activator. Of course, there were lessons learned:

  • The end-fed half-wave is a much better antenna than the AX1/AXE. Of course I knew that, but fast deployments have been a thing for me lately. I had the room for this activation and took advantage of a superior antenna.
  • I thought the battery in the KX2 was in better shape. I thought that it was charging or at least not being used because I had used an external battery for the previous activations. I was wrong.
  • The lesson is to always check battery state of charge before going to the field.
  • Always have a spare battery handy. Things go bad.
  • Working a big pile-up is part of the fun of radio. Park activations provide that opportunity. But it is hard brain work and requires focus.
  • Expect to be tired after a park or summit activation. I was.

It was a good day. I chatted with Dick on my way home. I had 68 contacts in the log over an hour and three quarters. When I arrived home, Older Son was going through his workout. We went to supper after he finished and cleaned up.

I then showered and readied myself for bed. As I wrote, it was a good day. I am grateful. Life is good.

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.