POTA at Big Elk Creek State Park

For most of this year, I’ve fallen into the habit of activating the same familiar parks. Today, I wanted to go out to a park I haven’t been to before. After looking at the map on the POTA website, I chose Big Elk Creek State Park (K-9721/KFF-6093) as today’s destination. 

Big Elk Creek received its state park designation back in September, making it one of Pennsylvania’s newest state parks. I did a little Google Earth reconnaissance to get a feel for the area. There are no amenities to speak of, but it has some trails and two trailhead parking lots. I entered both trailheads into my navigation app before heading out.

Big Elk Creek near the Springlawn Trail
Big Elk Creek near the Springlawn Trail

After driving about an hour, I stopped first at the Springlawn trailhead. Being a low-lying area, it didn’t look promising for radio. A sign showed that the trail was closed temporarily because of hunting in the area. I moved on to the second parking area shown on the park map. 

I pulled into the Fair Hill Trailhead. This spot was wide open, had good elevation, and I was the only one there. I set up my usual Penntek TR-35 (5 watts) and my homebrew vertical

Fair Hill Trailhead in Big Elk Creek State Park
Fair Hill Trailhead in Big Elk Creek State Park

I started on the 40 meters CW. Right after I spotted my location and frequency, I was greeted by a large pile-up that took a little while to work through. Being a new park, Big Elk Creek has only been activated a handful of times. I’m guessing that’s what attracted all the hunters.

During my activation, I also spent time on 30, 20, and 17 meters. After about an hour and 15 minutes, I had 42 stations in my log. I had three park-to-park QSOs, and I also worked England, Italy, and Portugal. 

Right as I was reaching for the power switch to turn off the radio, I heard PG4I calling “CQ SKCC” on 17M. I quickly grabbed my straight key and called him. We exchanged our SKCC info, and Jo gave me a 559 from the Netherlands. That brought my total to 43 with four DX contacts today. 

A car pulled into the parking lot as I was taking down my antenna. The driver walked over to inquire about my antenna. I gave him a brief explanation of the Parks on the Air program, and we had a nice chat about the park. He told me about the trail that heads south for about a mile to the Maryland state line. The Fair Hill State Natural Area (K-6387) is just across the state line.

I’m planning to come back at some point to do a little hiking and activate both Big Elk Creek and Fair Hill.

73, Craig WB3GCK

Black Friday POTA

Traditionally, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday here in the U.S. is the start of the Christmas shopping season. People flock to the stores looking for bargains. This time of year is typically when stores start turning a profit (operating in the black), hence the name “Black Friday.” Wanting to avoid all of that craziness, I went a different way and headed out to a nearby park for a POTA activation.

For a variety of reasons, I haven’t been on the air much this month. I was overdue for some QRP-portable operating, so I headed to nearby Evansburg State Park (K-1351, KFF-1351). It was rainy here in southeastern Pennsylvania this morning. When I arrived at the park, I was the only one there for a while. 

WB3GCK at Evansburg State Park (K-1351) on a damp and dreary morning
WB3GCK at Evansburg State Park (K-1351) on a damp and dreary morning

I set up my TR-35 (5 watts) inside the truck and installed my trusty 19-foot vertical on the back. The hunters quickly showed up after I spotted myself. I had my required ten contacts in about ten minutes. After I had logged 16 contacts on 40M, a station came on frequency and started CQing. I figured that was a good time to check some other bands.

The organized chaos inside my truck
The organized chaos inside my truck

Up on 20M, the signals didn’t seem as strong. Nevertheless, I picked up 15 more contacts. I made four more contacts on 17M before pulling the plug. 

After a little more than an hour, I ended up with 36 contacts. Among those were four park-to-park contacts. I also logged four DX contacts: DL1AX (on two bands), SP6GNJ, and F4ILH. 

It felt great to be back out activating. Hopefully, I can get back out again over the weekend.

73, Craig WB3GCK

POTA at Swatara State Park

I had a rare free day today. The only thing on my agenda was to drive out to see my grand-kids in central Pennsylvania. I made a last-minute decision to activate a park on the way there. 

Just minutes before I left the house, I looked at the map of parks on the POTA website and selected Swatara State Park (K-1426/KFF-1426). I’d never been there, so I took a quick look at a map of the park and spotted a trailhead with restrooms. So, I put the address for the Trout Run Trailhead in my GPS and took off. 

I rolled into the parking lot about 90 minutes later. Except for a park maintenance truck, I was the only one there. I quickly set up and got busy. The rig today was my TR-35 (5 watts) and my trusty 19-foot vertical

WB3GCK all alone in the Trout Run trailhead parking lot at Swatara State Parks
WB3GCK all alone in the Trout Run trailhead parking lot at Swatara State Park

The cell coverage was great, so I easily spotted myself. A minute or two later, the hunters came calling. I spent most of my time on 40M, but I also made contacts on 30M and 20M. 

After about 90 minutes, I had 54 CW contacts in the log. Among those were six park-to-park QSOs and one DX contact (CU3AA).

Swatara State Park is another park worth further exploration. There aren’t many amenities, but there are lots of trails. It appears to be a popular spot for mountain biking. 

Trail signs at Swatara State Park. The Appalachian Trail runs through the park, but I wasn't close enough for a "two-fer."
Trail signs at Swatara State Park. The Appalachian Trail runs through the park, but I wasn’t close enough for a “two-fer.”

There was a trailhead for the Appalachian Trail just down the road from where I was. If I hadn’t been so hasty with my planning, I could have gone there and activated a “two-fer.” Maybe next time. 

73, Craig WB3GCK

POTA at French Creek State Park

Hopewell Lake Sign in French Creek State Park

Normally, my (far) better half and I do a lot of camping in French Creek State Park (K-1355/KFF-1355). This year, because of medical and other issues, we didn’t take the QRP Camper out at all. In fact, it’s been about a year since our last camping trip there. So, I paid a visit to French Creek this morning for a long-overdue POTA activation.

Virtually all of my activations in this park have been from campsites. This morning, though, I operated from a parking lot near a picnic area and boat launch. I operated from my truck, using my TR-35 (around 5 watts) and my 19-foot homebrew vertical

  • Hopewell Lake in French Creek State Park (K-1355/KFF-1355)
  • Hopewell Lake in French Creek State Park (K-1355/KFF-1355)

My cell coverage wasn’t very good, so I had trouble spotting myself. Fortunately, the Wi-Fi in my truck uses a different carrier and allowed me to get my spot posted. Almost immediately, the hunters started calling.

After an hour, I had 36 in the log, including two park-to-park contacts. I also worked Germany and Poland on 17M.

Hopefully, we’ll be getting back to camping at French Creek again next year. In the meantime, I’ll be doing some more activations here for sure. 

73, Craig WB3GCK

POTA at Hopewell Furnace

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site - Entrance Sign

I had another quick activation this morning at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site (K-0834/KFF-0834). It was a short, but very productive, session. 

The last time I activated Hopewell Furnace was back during the NPOTA event in 2016. This park is only about 30 minutes away from home, so I’m not sure why it took me so long to get back here. 

I pulled into the parking lot near the Visitor Center and set up my 19-foot vertical on the back of the truck and my TR-35 in the truck’s cab. A group of hikers were gathering at one end of the parking lot, so I stayed well away from their activity.  

Before getting on the air, I walked down to the Visitor Center for a “comfort break.” On my way there, one of the hikers came up to me and asked if I could satisfy his group’s curiosity about my antenna. I gave him a quick run-down on ham radio and the Parks on the Air activity. He figured it was ham radio, but was curious about why I was in the park. 

WB3GCK at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site
WB3GCK at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site (K-0834/KFF-0834)

One thing I remembered about this park from 2016 is the spotty cell coverage. It hasn’t improved much since then. I tried to spot myself, but I wasn’t sure if it went through. Stations started calling me, so it must have worked. 

It wasn’t long before I started getting some pile-ups on 40M. I did my best to pick out the callsigns, so I hope I got everyone. Things slowed down a bit after 30 minutes, so I moved up to 20M. It was less hectic up there, but I quickly put a dozen more contacts in the log. 

I pulled the plug after about 50 minutes, because I had a few things to take care of back home. I ended up with 41 contacts in the log, including one park-to-park contact (that I know of) and a QSO with F4ILH. 

As I was packing up, a man across the parking lot yelled, “That’s the biggest antenna I’ve ever seen. I bet you can reach Europe with that thing.” I happily told him I had just talked to a station in France.

It was a fun morning. I won’t wait another 6 years to come back.

73, Craig WB3GCK

Support Your Parks Weekend – Fall 2022

I haven’t activated a park recently, so I made a point to get out today. This weekend is the Parks on the Air Fall Support Your Parks weekend. What better time to activate?

I made a last-minute decision to head back to the western boat launch area in Marsh Creek State Park (K-1380, KFF-1380), a site I’ve been to a few times in the past year. Looking at the surrounding terrain, you would think this is a terrible location. It’s down at water level near the lake, and you have to descend a large hill to get down there. Despite the terrain, I’ve always had good luck from there. Today was no exception. Not to mention there’s a beautiful view of the lake. 

WB3GCK at Marsh Creek State Park (K-1380)
WB3GCK at Marsh Creek State Park (K-1380)

Using my TR-35 and my 19-foot vertical, I started out on 40M. Initially, I had a little trouble spotting myself. Even before I was spotted, a station in New York stumbled upon me and got things started. Eventually, my spot went through, and things really picked up. I made 28 contacts on 40M in the first 45 minutes. Up on 30M, I picked up 11 more contacts.

Before I left, I checked 17M, and I’m glad I did. I was getting some very strong Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) spots from Europe. In short order; I had three contacts, with the last two being SP6GNJ and CU3AA. Happily, my puny five-watt signal was making the trip across the pond. 

Support Your Parks Weekend activator certificate
Support Your Parks Weekend Activator Award

I ended up with 42 contacts, including two park-to-park QSOs, and the two DX contacts. Right after I uploaded my log, I received a certificate for activating a park during Support Your Parks weekend. I made a few contacts as a hunter yesterday, so I also received a hunter certificate. 

Note to Self: Get out for more POTA activations.

73, Craig WB3GCK

Fall Weekend Outings

I was long overdue for some portable QRP, so I went out twice over the weekend. As a bonus, we had some beautiful Fall weather here in southeastern Pennsylvania.

On Saturday, I headed up to my daughter’s property, intending to make some contacts in the Straight Key Century Club’s (SKCC) Weekend Sprintathon (WES) contest. I used my TR-35 with my 19-foot vertical mounted on my truck. 

My hilltop location on Saturday
My hilltop location on Saturday

The bands, especially 20M, were in good shape, and I made a half-dozen SKCC contacts. There were a lot of Parks on the Air (POTA) activators, so I spent most of my time hunting them. The Pennsylvania QSO Party was also going on, and I logged a few of them, too. 

On Sunday, I went for a bike ride on the Schuylkill River Trail and stopped in a park for a little radio time. This time I used my newly acquired (tr)uSDX with my ground-mounted 19-foot vertical. 

My bike-portable setup on Sunday
My bike-portable setup on Sunday

The bench I was sitting on was getting full sun from time to time, which made reading the radio’s display a challenge. There were some loud signals on 20M that seemed to overload the radio’s front end. I could have used some attenuation, but, not being able to read the display clearly, I didn’t attempt to navigate the menus. (Note to self: Stay in the shade next time.) Despite these challenges, I logged three SKCC stations receiving good signal reports from each of them. 

Nothing really exciting this weekend, but it was great to get back out portable again. 

73, Craig WB3GCK

My New Toy

I keep saying that I need another rig like I need a hold in the head. I guess I have a hole in my head, because I recently bought another QRP rig. 

The rig I purchased was a (tr)uSDX transceiver. I had been thinking about getting one of these little rigs for several months before finally giving in and buying one. I placed an order with roWaves in Romania, and, to my surprise, I had it in my hands five days later. 

My new (tr)uSDX transceiver on the air for the first time
My new (tr)uSDX transceiver on the air for the first time

This rig is only about the size of a pack of cigarettes, but it sure packs a lot of functionality in there. I won’t go through all the specs and functions, but it puts out about 5 watts (give or take) and covers 80/60/40/30/20m. It supports CW/LSB/USB/FM/AM, and you can set it up for digital modes, too. 

There are three controls (two push-buttons and a rotary encoder), and they each have multiple functions. So, it’ll take some practice getting this old dog used to the menus and functions. 

I set it up on the bench to fire it up for the first time. I connected it to my Elecraft T1 tuner, which was connected to my rainspout antenna. During this initial session, I logged contacts on 40, 30, and 20M. One of those was a very nice chat on 30M with a fellow SKCC member up in Massachusetts. This little rig held up well in my noisy environment.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to take the (tr)uSDX out in the field over the weekend and give it a whirl. 

73, Craig WB3GCK

A Public Service Weekend

I haven’t been very active on the HF bands lately. Family functions and other obligations have been keeping me busy. This weekend, however, I was able to take part in two different ARESRACES events.

On Saturday morning, our local ARES-RACES group conducted a Simulated Emergency Test (SET). Because of the heavy rains forecasted, most operators participated from home. During the brief exercise, I sent an NBEMS message and a Winlink peer-to-peer message to the county Emergency Operations Center over local 2M simplex frequencies. I used my little Evolve laptop, and it performed great.

On Sunday, our ARES-RACES group provided emergency communications for the Marshalton Triathlon. This annual, family-friendly event combines cycling, canoeing, and speed walking. This year I was once again stationed at “Canoe Out,” which is the terminus of the 2.3 mile canoe run on the Brandywine River.

  • A water-logged WB3GCK at the Marshalton Triathlon
  • A crew was on hand to help participants disembark safely
  • The boat handlers did a great job in some very muddy conditions

This year’s triathlon was a wet one. It rained steadily for most of the five hours I was onsite. Despite the lousy weather, the participants seemed to have a good time. After the last canoe arrived, I was able to head home and dry out. 

Hopefully, I’ll get back to doing some QRP-portable operating this week.

73, Craig WB3GCK

Evolve III Maestro E-Book

You’ve most likely heard hams talking about the Evolve III laptop over the past few months. I had been hearing about these little laptops being snapped up at prices as low as $60. Several ARES-RACES colleagues have been happy with them, and there’s even one running 24 x 7 as a VARA FM digipeater in our Emergency Operations Center. So, I had to buy one and judge for myself.

So, what is attracting hams to this laptop? Of course the low price is attractive to frugal hams. It’s also small (11.6-inch display) and light, making it useful for portable operation. Speaking of portable operations, you can charge the Evolve III from a 12-volt DC source. Out in the field, you can charge this laptop from the same type of 12-volt battery used to power your rig. 

Evolve III Maestro E-Book
Evolve III Maestro E-Book

Despite its low cost and small size, it’s a capable little machine. It runs the Windows 10 Pro Education operating system, and has two USB ports and a micro SD memory card slot. A 1.1 GHz Celeron processor runs the laptop, and it has 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB of data storage. 

Micro Center stores have been selling them for $59.99 with a limit of five per customer. When I checked my local store, they were out of stock, so I bought one on Amazon for about $89. (Still a bargain, I think.) These laptops are obviously clearance items, since the Evolve website shows newer models running Window 11.

My plan for this little laptop is to use it for logging during QRP-portable operations, especially Field Day and Winter Field Day. I also want to use it for digital communications during ARES-RACES exercises and deployments. 

Getting started with the Evolve III was the same as any other Windows 10 device I’ve owned. The initial Windows setup didn’t take long, and I was ready to install some software. I started by installing the software I use for logging, e.g., N3FJP ACLog, SKCC logger, HamRS, N3FJP Field Day Logger, etc. Everything ran without issues. 

Next I installed the software I need for ARES-RACES. First up was Winlink Express, along with VaraFM and SoundModem. Then, I installed the Narrowband Emergency Messaging System (NBEMS) software, i.e., fldigi, flmsg, and flamp. Over the past two weeks, I’ve been making solid connections to a local Winlink node on 2M using VARA FM. The NBEMS software has also been working great during our local ARES-RACES digital nets.

After using the Evolve III daily for the past few weeks, I really like it. The keyboard has a good feel to it, and the display looks good. I used it outdoors in the shade and the display was still readable. You might need to crank up the brightness, though. 

Is it the fastest laptop? No way. Is it fast enough? Absolutely. I’ve heard of hams running FT8 on these things with no issues. You would think the 64GB of storage would be a limitation. However, after installing the ham radio applications I use, I still had about 24GB left. Just in case, I took advantage of the Micro SD card slot and added an extra 128 GB of storage.

I’m really impressed with the battery life. Depending on what I’m doing, I get more than eight hours of operation on a charge. 

Lately, it seems like my house is where computers go to die. I’ve had a laptop and a desktop go belly-up in recent months. Given what I paid for the Evolve III, if it dies, I won’t feel a tremendous loss. 

73, Craig WB3GCK