25 Years of QRP-Portable

My (far) better half was going through some old pictures recently and came across some pictures of me operating while tent camping on a family vacation back in August 1993. After I studied the picture for a bit, it dawned on me that the old photograph had captured my first time operating QRP-portable.

Back in the early ’90s, I was just getting back on the air again after a long period of inactivity. I had a station at the house but what I really wanted was a portable QRP rig. I eventually purchased an MFJ-9030 QRP rig for 30M so I could take my hobby on the road.

Right around that time, we were getting ready to take a week-long vacation of tent camping on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Wanting to take my new rig along, I hurriedly went about assembling a portable station. I bought a gel cell battery from a local hobby shop and threw together a 30M dipole. I wasn’t sure how much coax I would need so I used 50-feet of RG-8x, which, in hindsight, was overkill. Together with my old Radio Shack straight key, I packed everything in a small, waterproof container and placed it with the rest of the camping gear.

Being the detailed planner and organizer that she is, it took my wife no time at all to spot my container of radio gear. This prompted a stern reminder that this was a family vacation and no way was I going to spend all day on the radio and leave her to deal with the kids. Despite my assurances that I wouldn’t do that, she remained skeptical.

The day after we arrived and got our camp set up, I went about putting up my dipole. Because of the dense pine trees, my dipole only ended up about 15 feet up. I had to coil up the majority of my 50-foot coax at the base of a tree. Yep, my fifty feet of coax was definitely too long. (It was replaced with 30 feet of RG-174 when I got home.)

WB3GCK operating QRP-portable for the first time back in August 1993 at a campground on the Eastern Shore of Virginia
WB3GCK operating QRP-portable for the first time back in August 1993 at a campground on the Eastern Shore of Virginia

My log shows that I made my first-ever QRP-portable contact on August 15th with K3EEL (SK) up in northern Pennsylvania. I made 3 more QSOs before calling it a day. I only operated for about an hour but I was hooked!

I’m an early riser. The rest of my family… not so much. So, for the rest of the week, I fell into a routine of getting on the radio early in the morning, while the coffee was brewing on the camp stove. I usually got on again later in the afternoon while the kids were relaxing before dinner. My better half soon realized that my ham radio habit could peacefully coexist with the rest of the family’s activities. In fact, one lazy afternoon she said, “Why don’t you get on the radio for a while?”

I had a lot of fun that week, making 34 contacts. Since then, a QRP rig has gone along on every camping trip or vacation we have taken.

Here’s to the next 25 years of QRP-portable operating!

72, Craig WB3GCK

Of Blind Squirrels and QRP Contests

There’s an old saying that goes: “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.” I think that was the case for me 23 years ago.

As I was submitting my meager entry for last week’s QRP to the Field (QTTF) Contest, it made me think back to the very first QTTF contest in April of 1995. I’ve never considered myself a serious contester; not by a long stretch. Somehow, though, I actually placed 1st overall in the NorCal QRP Club’s inaugural QTTF.  I actually did it with a most unlikely setup, too.

My 1st place certificate from the first-ever running of the QRP to the Field Contest in 1995
My 1st place certificate from the first-ever running of the QRP to the Field Contest in 1995

A local ham, Rolf N3LA (SK), graciously allowed me to operate my modest QRP station from his rural property. I operated from my truck with my antenna supported by one of Rolf’s trees.

My antenna was simply a 40M inverted vee that I made from #22 stranded hook-up wire. I fed it with about 30-feet of RG-174 coax. The center of the antenna was only about 12 to 15 feet high. One end was tied off to a bush about 4 feet off the ground. The other end ran into a fenced-in area that was home to a ram with a bad attitude.  I had to wait until the ram was otherwise pre-occupied to tie-off that end of the antenna. That end was only a foot or two off the ground.

My rig was a Small Wonder Labs SW-40 running 950mW. This was from the first batch of kits offered by Dave Benson’s (K3SWL) former company. I was also using a keyer built from an old NorCal kit, which used the classic Curtis keyer chip. I used a set of paddles that I had cobbled together from stuff in my junk box. The whole station was powered by a 7 A-H gel cell battery that was almost as big as the rest of the equipment combined.

Some of the equipment I used for the QTTF Contest in 1995. The SW-40 and NorCal Keyer are packaged in LMB enclosures. My "Junkbox Paddles" are on the right. I made a lot of QSOs with this setup in years past.
Some of the equipment I used for the QTTF Contest in 1995. The SW-40 and NorCal Keyer are packaged in LMB enclosures. My “Junkbox Paddles” are on the right. I made a lot of QSOs with this setup in years past.

Over the course the afternoon, I worked a steady stream of QRPers. I was in QRP heaven. Even Rolf, who was monitoring from inside his house, was amazed at the number of contacts I was producing with less than a watt.

QRP to the Field 1995 - WB3GCK (950mW)
40M CW
1615 K4XY VA
1641 WA9MTO MD
1646 KG8FL OH
1653 KI2L MA
1659 W2RPH NJ 1W
1701 K2SJB NY
1706 VY2MP PEI
1710 N1OZL MA
1723 WQ1T NH
1740 KC1FB CT
1743 W3TS PA 1W
1745 AC4WC VA 4W
1749 K1PUG CT 1W
1807 WK8S MI
1810 WA8IBT OH
1827 N7ANT VA
1836 W3EEK PA
1840 W2TFL NY
1844 KB8GAE OH
1848 AA3GN PA
1851 K2MV NJ
1855 WA0JTL MI
1858 WB8EEL MA
1903 N4JEO VA
1905 NO1E NH
1913 AA2PF NY
1915 K4XY VA (DUPE)
1917 N2CX NJ
1929 AA2NL NJ
1930 AA4YZ/8 OH
2038 W2QUV NY 5W
2048 KD4PUP VA
2050 KT3A PA <1W
2054 KA4GVA VA
2056 W03B MD 250mW
2101 W8MVN OH 4W
2117 AA2WJ NY
2129 KZ4D VA 2W
2137 WA8LCZ MI
2139 AA1EX NH
2141 WQ1F VT 4W
2144 KC1FB CT (DUPE)
2146 K2JT NJ
2204 K0JPL MO
2209 KA3WTF PA 5W

I specifically remember a couple of the contacts.  I worked Joe N2CX, who was testing a new antenna over in New Jersey.  Joe later mentioned that QSO in an article about his antenna in QRP Quarterly. I also remember working Ernie W8MVN (SK) in Ohio. Back in the day, Ernie ran a pair of phased, full-wave 40M delta loops on top of a 60-foot tower. He called me with an ear-splitting QRP signal that had me scrambling for the RF gain control on my rig. I think my ears are still ringing from his incredibly loud signal.

Even though I only operated on one band with my 950mW rig, I managed to log 46 contacts (plus a few dupes) that day. With my QRPp multiplier, I ended up in first place out of a field of 50 stations.

I haven’t done that well in a QRP field contest since.  (I did, however, place 2nd in the New England QRP Club’s QRP Afield contest using the same equipment later that year.) Rather than skill or prowess as a contester, I have always attributed my win to a combination of great propagation and lots of plain old dumb luck.

If your callsign is in the log above, thank you for helping this blind squirrel find a nut!

72, Craig WB3GCK

Ron Polityka WB3AAL (SK)

I heard the sad news this morning that Ron Polityka WB3AAL passed away on March 30th. Ron was an avid QRPer who was well-known throughout the QRP community. Ron was known for his portable operations, particularly from the Appalachian Trail.

Ron and I go back about 25 years or so. Back in the early 90s, I was contacted by Ron, who was starting up the Eastern Pennsylvania QRP Club. My first meeting with Ron was at a local hamfest and I became an active EPA-QRP member after that.

Ron WB3AAL operating CW at the EPA-QRP Field Day in 2006
Ron WB3AAL operating CW at the EPA-QRP Field Day in 2006

Over the years, I participated in many EPA-QRP Field Days with Ron. I also camped out with Ron a few times for various QRP field contests. I spent an interesting weekend with Ron aboard the Lightship Chesapeake (LV-116) in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in 2003. We activated the Chesapeake for a Lighthouse/Lightship Week event.

WB3AAL aboard the Lightship Chesapeake (LV-116) in 2003
WB3AAL aboard the Lightship Chesapeake (LV-116) in 2003

Ron was one of the founding members of the Polar Bear QRP Club. I was fortunate enough to take part in one of the very early Polar Bear Moonlight Madness Events with Ron and others at Pulpit Rock on the Appalachian Trail.

In recent years, I only had occasional contact with Ron. So, I was stunned to learn of his passing at the young age of 58. Ron touched the lives of many in the QRP Community and his presence will be missed.

RIP and 72, Ron.


A Memorable Contact

I’m sure we’ve all had memorable contacts.  You know, the ones where you can recall the content and the events surrounding them, even decades later.  I was going through one of my old logbooks today and I saw an entry from almost 22 years ago that brought back a flood of memories.

Back in August of 1995, my wife and I took our two daughters on a weeklong tent camping trip to the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  My wife had a “milestone birthday” that week (I won’t say which one) and that’s how she wanted to spend it.

We arrived at our campsite on Saturday, August 12th, 1995, and quickly set up our tents.  As is my usual custom, I brought a QRP rig along.  My simple set up for this trip was my old MFJ-9030 30M rig and my old J-38 straight key.  I strung a lightweight dipole between two pine trees and ran the RG-174 coax down to a picnic table.  The rig was powered by a 7 A-H gel cell battery, which was enough power for a week of casual operating.  The MFJ-9030 put out about 3 watts under battery power.  On a typical day, I got on the radio each morning for a couple of contacts and again later in the day.

Our vacation got off to a great start.  While my wife was away from the campsite on her birthday, the girls and I threw her a surprise birthday celebration.  We decorated the campsite with balloons and streamers.  My family enjoyed spending time outdoors without the distraction of TV and telephones.  Back in 1995, smartphones weren’t available and I didn’t own a cellphone yet.  By Monday, there weren’t any other campers near us.  So, we were blissfully unaware of what was going on in the world outside of our little campsite.

The morning of Tuesday, August 15th, 1995, was a typical morning for me while camping.  I was up earlier than the rest of the family.  I got the percolator ready and fired up our old Coleman camp stove.  While the coffee was brewing, I turned on the radio and tuned around the 30-meter band.

Just before 7:00 AM local time, I made contact with Clark W8IHN/8.  Clark was operating portable from Houghton Lake, Michigan.  We had a very nice rag chew.  During our CW conversation, Clark mentioned that he was 79 years old and had been on CW for 66 years!  He was interested in our camping set up and our location.  He asked me if I was following the news.  I said I hadn’t been.  He said I should since there was a hurricane heading our way.  He said it looked like the Virginia coast was going to be getting high winds and “big surf.”  He advised that we not wait too long to leave the area.  We signed off after an enjoyable 45-minute chat.  In my notebook, I wrote, “QSL for sure.  Send a postcard.”

QSL card from W8IHN. On the back of the card, he wrote: “What can I say, Craig, it’s not often that I run into a fellow ham that I take a liking to. I do hope we can meet up again on 30M.”
QSL card from W8IHN. On the back of the card, he wrote: “What can I say, Craig, it’s not often that I run into a fellow ham that I take a liking to. I do hope we can meet up again on 30M.”

Concerned by Clark’s warning, I got in the car and tuned the radio to a local broadcast station. Clark was right — Hurricane Felix was heading our way.  Before we left Pennsylvania, Felix was still churning around in the Caribbean.  It didn’t seem to be much of a threat to our vacation plans.  Now, a hurricane warning, which included our location near the lower Chesapeake Bay, had been issued.  To the south of us, they were planning an evacuation of the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  Things were getting serious.

We spent the day listening to the news on the car radio and considering our options.  I suggested that we head inland and look for a safer campsite.  In the end, we decided to just head home the next day.

The next morning, I made two last contacts on 30 meters before taking the dipole down.  After breakfast, we tore down the tents and packed up for the trip back to Pennsylvania.  We stopped in the campground office to check out.  They said they were planning to evacuate the campground later that day.  Since they were planning to close the campground, they gave us a credit for our unused nights.

We were all disappointed that our vacation was cut short.  At least, we able to get out of the area, avoiding the traffic and confusion of an evacuation.  As we drove home, I was glad that I brought the QRP rig along and very grateful for that CW contact with W8IHN that had tipped us off to the bad weather heading our way.

In the end, Felix never did make landfall in the U.S.  It did, however, impact the East Coast.  In addition to major beach erosion,  nine unfortunate souls lost their lives due to the heavy surf.

Clark and I exchanged QSL cards but I don’t think I ever worked him again after that.  His real name was Whittier E. Clark.  Doing some Internet research, I found out that he became a Silent Key two years after our contact.

Wherever you are, Mr. Clark, I still think about our CW contact in the summer of 1995 and the concern you showed for me and my family.

73, Craig WB3GCK


For a variety of reasons, the past week has been a slow one for me, radio-wise.  However, I did notice on my calendar this morning that today is the 42nd anniversary of my first ham radio license.  Wow!  Where has the time gone?

Forty-two years ago, I had finished up my 4-year enlistment as a Navy Radioman and had just started school studying electronics.  I had plans to get my ham license, so I began to blow the dust off of my rusty CW fist.  Although the Navy trained me in Morse code, I never really had many opportunities to use it.  Also, I had never copied code without a typewriter (or “mill” as we called them in the Navy) so I had to learn how to copy CW with pencil and paper.

Radio gang aboard the USS LaMoure County (LST-1194) in 1974. I’m standing in the back, second from the right (with my eyes closed).
Radio gang aboard the USS LaMoure County (LST-1194) in 1974. I’m standing in the back, second from the right (with my eyes closed).

Once my code was back up to snuff, I contacted a local ham, Bob Rothrock K3MAZ (SK).  Years earlier, he restored an old console radio that my grandmother had given me.  Bob was the only ham I knew at the time and he graciously administered my Novice exam and helped Elmer me along when I had questions.

After receiving the callsign, WN3YSV, it took several months to put a station together and get on the air.  I found a used Heathkit DX-60 transmitter and paired it up with a Realistic DX-60B shortwave receiver I already had.  Anxious to get on the air, I quickly threw together a low dipole for 15 meters.  I picked 15 meters only because the dipole would fit easily across the backyard.

When I finally got on the air, I nervously called CQ a few times and was answered by K3RDT.  I was excited to hear someone calling me and I’m sure my sending reflected my nervousness.  I had never had a conversational CW exchange before.  As it turns out, Pete was only about a mile away from.  He helped other novices get on the air and seemed happy to be my first contact.

A few days after that shaky QSO, I received my first QSL card.  On the card Pete questioned my choice of 15 meters and encouraged me to figure  some way to get on 40 meters.  Of course, he was right.  I eventually rigged up a 40-meter dipole and ran across the roof of the house and across the backyard.  Although I made some nice contacts on 15 meters, the 40-meter novice band was where the action was for me.  I also became interested in QRP early on.  I built a little one-watt transmitter during that time and made a few contacts with it.

QSL card from my first ham radio contact with K3RDT.
QSL card from my first ham radio contact with K3RDT. It was 599 both ways, since we were only about a mile apart.

After a little over a year of operating, I moved away to start a new job.  My ham radio gear got packed away and I focused on my career and raising a family.  It would be another 15 years before I got back on the air with my current callsign.  Ham radio was definitely better the second time around.

Even after all these years, the thrill has never subsided.  This radio stuff is still like magic to me.

73, Craig WB3GCK