Radio Ramblings: 24 April 2024

I am remiss—even badly remiss—in rambling about radio, so here we go!

Unfortunately, there are no good photos to go along with this installment. I need to get better about that, especially when I'm playing with new equipment!

Playing POTA

As already mentioned, a great deal of my radio activity has been portable, and most of my portable activity has fallen under the rubric of Parks on the Air. The summary of the idea is: go to a recognized state or national park; set up your radio and antenna (with as little disruption to the park itself as possible); try to make at least ten contacts while there. If you "spot" yourself—that is, make a note on the POTA website that you're activating, and where to find you—there's a reasonable chance that you'll wind up with a pile-up of "hunters", so making 10 contacts is often fairly easy.

There's nothing "special" about the contacts you need to make. Any contact made while within the boundaries of a park, or within 100ft of the trail-head of a trail, is a valid POTA contact. This means that, in addition to parking on a frequency and spotting yourself, letting the pile-up come to you, you can choose to go hunting "park-to-park". Indeed, this is often how I go about warming up while I'm finding an unused frequency to try to activate from—tune around the dial, based on the spotting page, and make park-to-park contacts, in which case, both I and my contact get credit as both activators and hunters.

It also means that, if the bands are crowded, you sometimes have to get creative. You might not be able to ever find a truly open patch of airwaves to camp out on, but on the other hand, there are plenty of people to talk to, and every contact counts. Is there a contest going on, filling up 20-meters? Respond to the contesters' CQ calls, and it still counts!

I've had four different park activations in the last month, and each one went a little differently!

Different state, different parks!

On a road trip to Des Moines, IA, I had time to stop in each direction to play POTA, and chose to do each activation at a different park in Iowa.

For the one on my way south, I chose McIntosh Woods State Park (designated US-2306). This was a large park with a lot of options for me. In cruising around to find a good spot, I found a pavillion that nobody was using (not that surprising for a Friday afternoon at the end of March). The pavilion faced the lake, and had a good spot nearby to plant an antenna. It also had a working power outlet! This is a bonus—I usually work on battery power. I have not yet discovered the practical limits of my battery, so I welcomed an opportunity to save the battery's charge for the return trip, and use the small power supply I have for radio use.

So, I set up the radio (Yaesu FT-710), the antenna (17 foot whip on the Wolf River mini-tripod, set on top of a window screen for a ground plane), the power supply, and the new tiny laptop I've gotten specifically for playing radio, along with my comfy camp chair. I didn't bother with the table, since there was a perfectly good picnic table under the pavilion. The antenna I was using makes it easy to work all the ham bands from 6 meters through 20 meters—20m being extremely popular to work in general. The bands were overall propagating well, and I warmed up a little on 15m before going down to 20m, where I stayed for the rest of the activation.

This park, and this pavilion in particular, was such a great location to activate from that I was surprised to find relatively few people have done so, even allowing for the fact that the park is not really near any big town. Even more surprising, after I was done and submitted my log, was the realization that the 138 contacts I made that day made me the park's top activator for number of QSOs!

This park is about two hours from home, which means I could actually see myself going back just to that park at some point.

On the way back, I hit up Ledges State Park (US-2303). If you're stuck in your believe that Iowa is flat, this park will teach you otherwise. While by no means as steep or craggy as a truly mountainous region would be, this park lives up to its name. I was able to find a small parking area on a ledge, mostly unused that day, with a nice elevation and a view down the hill. No pavilion, so I set up to operate in the car. Before doing so, however, I also took advantage of the relative desertion of the location, and the trees, to take some time to try to adjust the tuning of my end-fed half-wave wire antenna I built a few weeks ago, but haven't had time to really use. I didn't actually use it for operating this time, either, but I knew it needed to be trimmed to tune it up better to be resonant. I didn't get quite as far as I hoped with that project before I realized I was sort of obstructing one of the trails, as someone came walking up it. I reeled in my wire after that and went about setting up my actual operation.

This was another good day for the bands, and I was able to work some FT8 from the tiny laptop through the radio, as well as get about 100 contacts voice over the course of a couple of hours.

Working from the car is definitely a compromise. On the one hand, there's less to set up—no chair, no table; if I got a heavier duty magnetic mount, I wouldn't even need a tripod or spike for my antenna, but my current magmount is only meant for a small VHF/UHF antenna. On the other hand, you're not really out in the park. On the third hand, if it starts to rain (which it did), your radio doesn't get wet!

Still, even from the car, the air was sweet (windows down), the forest was starting to bud a bit, and it was all in all a pleasant place to stop.

New antenna!

More recently, I decided to start playing with a new kind of antenna, called a delta loop. The name comes from its triangular shape. It's possible to make one's own delta loop with wire and poles and stakes, but I chose to buy one from a company called Chameleon. Chameleon's gimmick is that nothing they sell is usable only one way. In this case, the Chameleon Tactical Delta Loop comes with two 17' whips; a 25' length of wire, with loops and clips on each end; a "matching unit" that helps to manage impedance; a puck to serve as a base for the whips; and a spike to put in the ground and mount the whole assembly on.

When set up in the delta configuration, it's an inverted triangle, with the 25' length of wire along the top between the ends of the fully extended whips; the loops go over the balls at the ends of the whips, and then you clip the clips to the whips to make full contact. One of the whips goes directly into the puck; the other goes into the matching unit, which goes into the puck. Your feeder line to your radio also goes through the matching unit.

In this configuration, with no physical changes, the antenna works on every band from 6m down to 80m. That said, it works differently on different bands. If set up as documented—on a spike with the apex near the ground—40 and 80m become more NVIS, which makes them less useful for long-distance contacts but more useful for regional ones.

Of course, if you've been paying attention, you know I already use a single 17' whip as a vertical antenna with a ground plane. Sure enough, you can choose to use the same components to do exactly that: the puck has a mount-point in the middle, and you can screw the matcher to the mount point, and one of the whips into the matcher. Once again, that matcher makes the antenna multi-banded without having to physically adjust the antenna or a coil, but only down to 40m. In this configuration, the wire that bridges the two whips in delta configuration can be used instead as a ground-plane wire, but I chose to use my usual window-screen trick.

I have used the antenna in both orientations, now. For two POTA activations at parks I've been to before—Fort Snelling and Gateway Overview—I used the delta loop. In between the two, I went to Snelling not so much to activate the park again, as to get away from at-home noise to participate in a "net" that happened on the 40-meter band. This was when I used the vertical orientation.

Both were easy to set up, and worked extremely well for me despite some challenging band conditions. The solar maximum, on the one hand, allows distant communication (DX) at shorter wavelengths and in broad daylight; on the other hand, it means sometimes the sun spits out a flare that actually makes things worse, or at least noisier. On top of that, the weekend I experimented with the new antenna was a contest weekend, so the 20m band was extremely crowded.

All this to say, I wound up only netting about 25 contacts one day, and 20 the other. However, I also netted some interesting DX along the way that I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have caught with just the vertical orientation. For example, when I set up at Fort Snelling with the delta loop, the very first thing I heard, on 15m, was a station in Russia. I was able to reach him, too!

What's next?

I have a project planned to try to figure out why my house and its environs are so "noisy" on the ham bands from 15m through 40m. If I can identify and remedy the problem, I can actually set up a shack at home some day. If I can't, then I'm "doomed" to portable operation indefinitely. Mostly, I don't mind this, but I dislike not having the option to set something up at home!

I'm also starting to contemplate getting a second, more portable HF radio. The radio I have is fantastic—if any of you decide to follow me down this rabbit hole at some point, I will heartily recommend the FT-710 as a first HF rig. However, while it's "portable enough" to take in the car, it's not really portable enough to take with me if I fly, which I did this weekend (I'm in New Jersey as I write this). I would have liked an option to bring a radio and a small antenna, however compromised, with me.

This, of course, is how hams wind up just...accumulating radios. But I'm trying to make sure I have a real use-case before I seriously contemplate more money.

Finally, I'm considering doing a big trip to the Ohio Hamvention next month. On the one hand, it would be great to see it, great to meet a bunch of my fellow hams I talk with both on the air and online, and of course, give me an opportunity to hit more parks in more states I haven't activated yet. On the other hand, it's a lot of people I don't know in an area I don't know I've ever been to; and it's money!

Anyway, that's today's ramble. I will try to get back to more frequent posts to go along with the story. Possibly, at some point, I will actually start recording or even streaming activations, as well.

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