POTA and WWFF at Colonel Denning State Park

Our camping season is rapidly drawing to a close. My (far) better half and I took our little camper out to Colonel Denning State Park (POTA K-1343, WWFF KFF-1343) for our next-to-the-last trip of the year.

Located in central Pennsylvania, Colonel Denning was a new park for us. Our campsite for the weekend small but more than adequate. This section of the campground was along a creek and in a valley. There were steep hills directly behind our site. Given the terrain, I didn’t have high hopes for my radio waves getting out.

The WB3GCK "QRP Camper" at Colonel Denning State Park. My antenna is that white object to the rear of the camper.
The WB3GCK “QRP Camper” at Colonel Denning State Park. My antenna is that white object to the rear of the camper.

We arrived on Friday afternoon. After getting the camper situated, I set up my antenna and gave the radio a quick test. Tuning around, I could hear some strong signals. That gave me some hope.

I didn’t get on the air until Saturday morning. It was only 35F overnight, so I hunkered down in the camper to operate. I made a few contacts, so I appeared to be getting out OK. On 40M, I worked WB9WIU in Indiana, some New York QSO Party stations, and had a 2-way QRP QSO with WA1LFD in New Hampshire.

Doubling Gap Creek in Colonel Denning State Park.
Doubling Gap Creek in Colonel Denning State Park near our campsite.

Later in the day, I spotted myself on the POTA and WWFF websites and spent an hour or so working park chasers. I worked a lot of regulars including W6LEN in California. I had park-to-park QSOs on two bands (20M and 17M) with N4CD in Texas. At one point, I received a call from EA2IF in Spain, who mistakenly thought I was a SOTA activator. In any event, I was happy to add him to my log. I ended my brief POTA/WWFF session with 23 stations in the log.

We awoke Sunday morning to a steady rain. According to the local forecast, the day was going to be a washout–they were right. I made one final contact with K9FW on 80M before tearing down and packing up for the trip home.

The bands were in good shape over the weekend. Despite the terrain, my QRP signals seemed to have found their way out of the valley. Colonel Denning is on our list for a return visit next year.

73, Craig WB3GCK

No-Name CW Paddles

Once a day, I receive an email from eBay showing the latest listings for CW keys. In one of those emails, a small and inexpensive set of 3D-printed paddles caught grabbed my attention. My curiosity got the better of me, and I ordered some.

The primary reason for my interest was the size. I normally use Palm Mini paddles attached to a clipboard, when I’m out operating portable. The eBay listing offered paddles that were a bit smaller than my Palm Mini paddles. The Palm paddles are no longer available (much to my chagrin), so I was curious if these cheap paddles might be a viable alternative. Given the low price (around $15, shipping included), I had no delusions that the no-name paddles would be as good, though.

The paddles are “unbranded” and listed on eBay under the awkward title, “Cw key automatic key short wave automatic key double paddle radio report NEW.” There are numerous listings for these paddles. Most of them ship from Hong Kong but there are some U.S.-based sources. Some are available in kit form.

They are available in 3 sizes. The two larger paddles have magnetic bases. I bought the smallest one (3x8x2 cm), which had the potential to work with my clipboard setup. They are intended for two-handed operation but I figured I could improvise some sort of magnetic base for them.  

Unbranded, 3D-printed paddles from eBay. The screw (one on each side) adjusts the paddle contact spacing.
Unbranded, 3D-printed paddles from eBay. The screw (one on each side) adjusts the paddle contact spacing.

As mentioned earlier, they are 3D-printed. The seller cautions: “Can’t work in high temperature environment!” The term, “high temperature,” is undefined. I’m sure I would start to wilt in the heat long before the paddles.

It took a couple of weeks to receive my paddles from Hong Kong. Besides the paddles, the package contained a 3-foot patch cable with 3.5mm stereo plugs. There was no documentation but none was needed. 

Read view of the small, un-branded, 3D-printed paddles from eBay. The rear connector is a standard 1/8-inch stereo jack.
Read view of the small, un-branded, 3D-printed paddles from eBay. The rear connector is a standard 1/8-inch stereo jack.

Out of the box, I found the contact spacing to be much wider than I’m accustomed to. Fortunately, the paddles have access holes on each side to adjust the spacing. A few tweaks with a Phillips screwdriver got the spacing closer to my liking.  

It was easy to fashion a magnetic base. Using some two-sided foam mounting tape, I added two strong magnets to the bottom of the paddles. The magnets didn’t line up exactly with the washers on my clipboard but they held pretty well. 

You’re probably wondering how they work. Well, they are about what you’d expect from $15 paddles. For sure, they lack the solid, precise feel of my more expensive Palm paddles. The paddle arms have what I call, “vertical slop.” By that I mean you can wiggle them up and down. Also, the paddles’ contacts aren’t the greatest. They are just the threaded ends of two machine screws contacting the threads of a vertically-mounted machine screw. 

With the “vertical slop” and the rough contacts, you don’t always get clean contact closure. To me, it feels like the contacts sometimes “scratch” when they close. The left paddle also sticks occasionally. At higher speeds (20+WPM), they can be challenging. That said, I am able to coax decent-sounding code out of them at moderate speeds—if I’m careful.

As they say, you get what you pay for. These paddles won’t be replacing my Palm Mini paddles anytime soon. They don’t have the smooth, quality feel of my Palm paddles—or any other paddles I own. Not by a long shot. I concede, however, that comparing these $15 paddles to more expensive products is not entirely fair.

CW keys and paddles are always subject to personal preferences; however, if you are on a limited budget, these paddles might work for you. It certainly won’t cost you a lot to find out. 

73, Craig WB3GCK

[Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in these products whatsoever.]

Making a Public Spectacle of Myself

I think it’s a given: When you’re out in a public place with a radio and a 20-foot antenna pole, you’re bound to attract attention. In 26 years of portable operating, I’ve gotten more than my share of curious looks from passersby. At first, I was a little self-conscious, but now I don’t mind people wondering what this crazy old guy is up to.

For the most part, people will give my outdoor radio set-up a puzzled look and move on. Once in a while, a courageous spectator will approach me and ask what I’m doing.

There have been times when it’s a law enforcement officer who stops by. One park ranger in Delaware said she was responding to a call about “suspicious activity.” My antenna once attracted a police officer in Havre de Grace, Maryland. We wound up chatting for a bit, and he wished me luck as he drove off. 

Recently, at a local park, a fisherman yelled over to me, “Hey, ham radio guy! How are they biting?” I’m guessing we had talked at some point in the past. I replied, “Pretty good. How are they biting for you?”

One of my favorite encounters happened during last year’s Skeeter Hunt contest. A fellow who walked up to ask about my antenna turned out to be one of my earliest childhood friends. We hadn’t seen each other in decades, so I’m glad his curiosity got the better of him.

Whatever the circumstances, I found it useful to give a 30-second elevator speech about ham radio. In business, an elevator speech is a short, easy to understand pitch—one that can be delivered during a short elevator ride. I keep it simple and non-technical. Often, if it suffices to tell them: “It’s ham radio.” 

I try to be mindful of my environment. If I’m out in the woods by myself somewhere, my equipment is not likely to get in the way of other people. When I’m in a public place, however, I follow a few basic principles:

  • Stay Legal. Make sure you’re following all applicable rules for your location and, by all means, don’t trespass. If approached by authorities, be courteous and launch into your ham radio elevator speech. 
  • Stay Self-Contained. When I’m in a public place, I like to keep my equipment set-ups as compact as I can. Some parks have issues with putting wires in trees, so I’ll go with a self-supported antenna, like a vertical or small loop. That’s OK; it’s less time I have to spend cursing at trees when my throws miss the mark.
  • Don’t Become a Hazard to Others. This goes hand-in-hand with staying self-contained. I like to make sure my equipment isn’t a hazard to other people in the area, so I try to find a location away from others. I also make sure coax or counterpoise wires aren’t a trip hazard and that there’s no risk of my antenna falling on anyone.
  • Leave No Trace –  Make sure you leave the place as good as, if not better than, you found it. This is a good practice regardless of your location.
WB3GCK operating in Valley Forge National Historical Park. I was in a popular picnic area, so I chose a location away from other people. I also chose a set-up that was confined to the picnic table I was using.
WB3GCK operating in Valley Forge National Historical Park. I was in a popular picnic area, so I chose a location away from other people. I also opted for a set-up that was confined to the picnic table I was using.

Some encounters with the public have resulted in interesting discussions. Here’s a small sampling of questions and comments I’ve heard over the years:

  • “Is that a fishing pole? Catch anything?”
  • “How far can you get out with that thing?”
  • “Is ham radio still a thing?”
  • “Cool! My uncle (or some other relative) used to be into ham radio.”
  • “Are you communicating with the Mother Ship?” (I have also heard Martians and other extraterrestrial references)
  • “Can you talk to truckers with that?”
  • “Morse Code? Is that still around?”
  • “How many channels can you pick up with that thing?” (Assuming, my antenna is for TV, I suppose.)
  • “What exactly are you broadcasting?”

So, when you’re out and about, don’t be afraid of the attention you might be drawing; welcome it. You never know; you might be inspiring a future ham.

73, Craig WB3GCK

The K0MBT Mini-Mini Key

OK, I admit it. I have a fascination with tiny straight keys and paddles. With the proliferation of 3D printers, there are a lot of neat, innovative products available these days. This unusual little key from Dave Balfour KØMBT is a good example.

Dave got started in 3D printing as a hobby a few years ago. A while back, he started sharing his straight key designs with his fellow SKCC members on the SKCC mailing list. That generated some interest and, before long, Dave was offering his keys for sale. As of this writing, Dave is offering straight keys in two sizes and a single lever paddle that can be used as a sideswiper (aka cootie) key.

I ordered the smaller of Dave’s straight keys, which he calls the “Mini-Mini.” Dave promptly shipped one and I had it a few days later. When I opened the box, I was immediately intrigued by this little key.

K0MBT "Mini-Mini" Key
K0MBT “Mini-Mini” Key

When I say “little,” I mean “little.” Overall, it measures approximately 2-1/4″ L x 1″ W x 3/4″ H and weighs in at a minuscule 0.7 oz. (19g). Instead of a traditional knob, Dave uses a novel indentation on the keying lever. The other unique thing is the switch he uses instead of the contacts. A little computer mouse switch provides both the contact closure as well as the return spring. As a result, there are no adjustments for contact spacing or tension. It doesn’t get much simpler than this.

On the rear of the key, there are two terminals for connecting the wires of your choice. There are holes on each side of the key, that meet at the two terminals. You can route your wires in from the side, providing a little strain relief.

Rear view of the K0MBT "Mini-Mini" key
Rear view of the K0MBT “Mini-Mini” key

When I first grasped the key, my forefinger instinctively went into the indentation and it felt very natural. Despite the lack of adjustments, the key has a nice feel to it. With it just sitting on my desk, I can send code without the key sliding around too much. With the cable I’m using, though, it can sometimes feel like “the tail wagging the dog.” It’s not a huge issue, as long as I’m careful.

Kudos to Dave KØMBT for this unique and fun little key. If you’d like more information on Dave’s keys, look him up on QRZ.com or download Dave’s PDF file describing his offerings.

73, Craig WB3GCK

[Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in this product whatsoever.]

WES at Frances Slocum State Park

My (far) better half and I hitched up the “QRP camper” and headed north to the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Our destination for the weekend was Frances Slocum State Park. It was our first visit there and we had a great time. As a bonus, our trip coincided with the monthly SKCC Weekend Sprintathon (WES) contest.

Frances Slocum State Park, located north of Wilkes-Barre, covers 1,035 acres. The centerpiece of the park is Frances Slocum Lake. The campground is relatively small and very quiet. Ours was one of the larger sites available and was nicely secluded.

Frances Slocum Lake
Frances Slocum Lake

After getting the camper situated, I went about setting up my antenna. I had a bit of trouble driving in my Jackite pole ground mount. The ground was very rocky and it took 5 or 6 tries to find a spot to drive it in. I wound up putting it at the edge of our site near a large stand of pine trees.

My antenna at Frances Slocum State Park. It took 5 or 6 tries to find soft ground to drive in the ground mount.
My antenna at Frances Slocum State Park. It took 5 or 6 tries to find soft ground to drive in the ground mount.

I got on the air Saturday morning just as the WES contest was starting. In general, it seemed like my 5-watt signal was getting into the southern states with good signal reports but reaching New England was a problem at times. I’m guessing that the mountainous terrain surrounding the park was a factor.

WB3GCK doing some early morning operating inside the camper at Frances Slocum State Park
WB3GCK doing some early morning operating inside the camper at Frances Slocum State Park

After operating on and off on Saturday (and a little bit early Sunday morning), I ended up with 20 WES contacts in 12 SPCs. Not too bad, considering the time I spent on the air. I also worked KX0R out in Colorado. This was the second camping trip in a row where I worked George during one of his SOTA activations.

All in all, it was a very nice weekend. The weather was great and the radio wasn’t too bad.

72, Craig WB3GCK

W3Z Special Event Station

I received an email from my friend, Walt KB3SBC, last week. His group needed a CW operator for a special event station they were going to run at a local college. I volunteered to come out to work a few hours of CW for them and had a fun morning.

The event was the 150th anniversary of the founding of Ursinus College. Ursinus is a liberal arts college located in nearby Collegeville, PA.

Walt’s group, the Education Alliance for Amateur Radio (EAAR) is a non-profit corporation established in 2016 that promotes Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education through youth and community education and collaboration with other Amateur Radio organizations. The group obtained the callsign, W3Z, for the event at Ursinus College.

QSL card for the W3Z special event station
QSL card for the W3Z special event station

I arrived at Ursinus yesterday morning, as the group was unloading and setting up two outdoor stations near the festivities. The antennas included a fan dipole for 40M & 20M and Walt’s 32-foot military vertical.

Special event station, W3Z, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the founding of Ursinus College. Walt KB3SBC (left) is operating FT8, while Bill KA3RMM is operating SSB.
Special event station, W3Z, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the founding of Ursinus College. Walt KB3SBC (left) is operating FT8, while Bill KA3RMM is operating SSB.

I had the honor of leading off the event, operating CW. We were in the midst of a G2 geomagnetic storm, so it was rough going at times. After a couple of hours, we managed to put more than a dozen stations in the log, including Germany and two Belgian stations. (This was the first time I operated at 100 watts in more than 20 years!) Walt then took over and started making contacts with FT8, while the other station operated SSB.

I wasn’t able to stay for the whole event, so I don’t know what the final tally was. However, if you worked W3Z yesterday, see QRZ.com for QSL information.

I’d like to thank EAAR for the opportunity to be a part of the event. Be sure to visit the EEAR website and follow them on Facebook to find out more about their important work promoting STEM education.

73, Craig WB3GCK

Bike-Portable in the Park

We finally got a break from the incessant heat yesterday, so it was a great day to take the bike out for a ride.

I headed back to the Schuylkill River Trail near Oaks, Pennsylvania; one of my favorite places to ride. I rode for a couple of miles before turning onto the Perkiomen Trail. Along the way, I stopped in Lower Perkiomen Valley Park for a little radio.

Bicycle-portable in Lower Schuylkill Valley Park
Bicycle-portable in Lower Schuylkill Valley Park

I mounted my Alexloop to a picnic table and fired up my trusty KX3. Things got off to a slow start but I eventually connected with fellow SKCCer, K9FW, on 30M. Al always puts out a great signal from Indiana. The 40M band was tied up with Ohio QSO Party stations. I worked a few of them before loading up the bike to continue my ride.

There was nothing earth-shattering, radio-wise, but it was a beautiful day to be out cruising on my bike. I’ll take those mid-70s temperatures any day.

72, Craig WB3GCK