Captain John Smith Trail Activation

ARRL National Parks on the Air logoIt had been a while since I did a National Parks on the Air (NPOTA) activation,  so I decided to activate the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail (TR21).  The Captain John Smith Trail is a water trail that includes the Susquehanna River up to the Conowingo Dam.  Since I’m a member of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, I thought I would explore the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway Trail and activate TR21 somewhere along the way.  Despite my best efforts, things didn’t go as well as I had planned.

After suffering through a huge traffic jam due to a downed tree on a major highway, I arrived at the trailhead later than planned.  As I pulled into Fisherman’s Park just below the Conowingo Dam, I was greeted by a large group of vultures.  I think they foreshadowed the type of outing I was about to have.

A group of vultures at Fisherman's Park
On arrival, I was greeted by a large group of vultures. An omen, perhaps?

I unloaded my bike and headed out down the trail.   During my ride, I scouted out potential operating locations along the trail.  The pickings were slim.  For most of its 2.5-mile length, the trail parallels the Susquehanna River.  There is a very dense tree canopy over the trail.  On one side of the trail, there’s a sharp drop-off  down to the river.  The inland side of the trail is mostly wetlands.  I found a picnic table off to the side of the trail and stopped there on the ride back.

Remnants of the old railway along the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway Trail. The railway was used to transport materials when the Conowingo Dam was under construction.
Remnants of the old railway along the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway Trail. The railway was used to transport materials when the Conowingo Dam was under construction.

The temperature today was in the low 90s but it was comfortable while I was riding.  Once I stopped, though, the humidity under the dense tree canopy was unbearable.  I decided to ride back to the trailhead and operate from the parking lot.

This is where I had originally planned to operate along the trail.
This is where I had originally planned to operate along the trail.

I parked in the only shady spot I could find and set up my trusty 29.5-foot vertical.  My chosen spot had three major problems:  1) The shade was only short-lived, 2) the noise levels were very high,  and, 3) there was a steep hill behind me.  Undeterred, I started out on 40 meters and immediately got a call from  a station in South Carolina.  I continued to call CQ with no takers.  After that, I switched back and forth between 40 and 20 but no luck.  I made some changes to my antenna but still no luck.

My eventual operating location. Notice the receding shade and the large hill behind me.
My eventual operating location. Notice the receding shade and the large hill behind me.

The heat was starting to become too much for this old man.  My cell phone was overheating and going into some sort of self-protection mode.  Even though my KX3 was only set for 5 watts, it started feeling a bit warm.  On top of that, some biting flies decided to have lunch inside my truck and I was the main course.   After an hour or so, I had enough and packed up.  I waved goodbye to my vulture friends and headed home.

The Conowingo Dam
The Conowingo Dam

Although it wasn’t a successful NPOTA activation, I at least had a nice bike ride on an interesting trail.  I didn’t make the minimum number of contacts for a valid activation but, then again, I didn’t get skunked.   I’ll have to give TR21 another try later this year.  Next time, I’ll move further downstream from the hydroelectric plant.

I plan to do two more activations this week.  Hopefully, my luck will be better.

73/72, Craig WB3GCK

Hopewell Furnace NPOTA Activation

ARRL National Parks on the Air logoOn Good Friday, I found myself with a free afternoon.  I decided to take advantage of the great Spring weather and make a spur-of-the-moment trip to activate the Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site (NS37).  I hastily threw some equipment into my truck and headed out.

About 45 minutes later, I was on site and ready to get started.  But first, I  had to resolve some antenna issues.  For some reason, my SWR was higher than normal and not very stable.  I found a loose BNC connector on my 4:1 unun that I think was the culprit.  I eventually managed to get things stabilized enough to operate.  I was using my FT-817 at 5 watts into a 29.5-foot vertical wire antenna with two counterpoise wires.  I operated all CW.

The somewhat cramped operating position in my truck.
The somewhat cramped operating position in my truck.

I couldn’t spot myself due to lack of a cell signal, so I just started calling, “CQ NPOTA.”  After about 35 minutes with no takers, I was pretty close to packing up and heading home.  Finally, I worked a Wisconsin station on 20 meters.  I tuned down the band a bit and heard N4CD activating a park in Texas.  I got him on the first call.  So, at least, I was getting out to somewhere.

I moved down to 40 meters a worked stations in New York and Michigan.  One of them must have spotted me because things picked up quickly after that.  I spent the rest of my time on 40 meters and wound up with 30 contacts in the log (including 2 park-to-park QSOs) after an hour and forty-five minutes.

My 31-ft Jackite pole supported with a drive-on mount
My 31-ft Jackite pole supported with a drive-on mount

After I packed up, I stopped by the visitor center and chatted a bit with the park rangers.  They were very welcoming and happy to have their park activated again.  They were curious about how many contacts I made and how far I was able to get out.  As I was leaving they thanked me for putting their park on the air.

Hopewell Furnace visitor's center
Hopewell Furnace visitor’s center

I have some repair work to do on my antenna but it was a nice afternoon for an NPOTA activation.

72, Craig WB3GCK

Delaware Water Gap Activation

ARRL National Parks on the Air logoEach year, I spend a weekend in January with some QRP friends in the Delaware Water Gap Recreation Area.  We’re all members of a loosely-organized group of QRPers known as the Boschveldt QRP Club.  We stay in a cabin at the Mohican Outdoor Center (MOC) near Blairstown, New Jersey.  We have come to call this annual trip, “Camp Run-a-MOC.”  This year, the Boschveldt crew convened Camp Run-a-MOC over the weekend of January 15-17.  There were four QRPers in attendance:  WA3WSJ, NK1N, KB3SBC and me.  As a bonus, this year’s trip coincided with the National Parks on the Air (NPOTA) event.

Mohican Outdoor Center is run by the Appalachian Mountain Club.  It is located within the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and is popular stop-over point for Appalachian Trail through hikers.

Our home for the weekend at Mohican Outdoor Center
Our home for the weekend at Mohican Outdoor Center

Day 1

I rolled into camp around mid-day on Friday and the others were waiting for me in the parking lot.  I got out of my truck and threw my backpack into WA3WSJ’s truck and we took off for a hike up to the Catfish Fire Tower.  We hiked up the Fire Tower road and connected up with the Appalachian Trail. This location was an NPOTA “twofer.”  It encompasses both the Delaware Water Gap (RC07) and the Appalachian Trail (TR01).

Hiking to Catfish Fire Tower. L-R: KB3SBC, NK1N, WB3GCK. (Photo by WA3WSJ)
Hiking to Catfish Fire Tower. L-R: KB3SBC, NK1N, WB3GCK. (Photo by WA3WSJ)

While the others were operating pedestrian mobile, I hiked a little further down the trail in search of a good place to hang my EFHW antenna.  There weren’t a lot of good options.  There were a lot of dense woods up on this high ridge and the trees weren’t particularly tall.  I eventually got my antenna up in an inverted vee configuration.  It was NVIS at best.  I set up my YouKits HB-1B on a convenient flat rock and got on the air.

Catfish Fire Tower
Catfish Fire Tower

I worked one station on 20M CW but I didn’t hear much other activity.  I moved down to 40M and started calling CQ.  I fired off a quick text message to my friend, Carter N3AO, down in Virginia.  A few minutes later he answered my CQ.  After he spotted me on the cluster, I was soon met with a hoard of very strong signals calling me.  However, the pile-up was short-lived and the activity quickly slowed down.  About that time, the wind was blowing across the top of the ridge and it started getting cold up there.  I packed up and rejoined the others for the hike back down the hill.  I ended the day with 17 QSOs, most of them on 40M CW.

Operating along the Appalachian Trail near Catfish Fire Tower
Operating along the Appalachian Trail near Catfish Fire Tower (Photo by NK1N)

Day 2

After breakfast, we all packed up and headed out to the Crater Lake area to activate RC07.  While, the others continued on to Crater Lake, I pulled off into the Blue Mountain Lake trailhead parking lot.  It was a bit colder than the day before, so I opted to operate “stationary-mobile” from my truck.  I set up a 30 foot vertical on the back of my truck, using my bike rack mount, and set up my station in the truck.

Stationary-mobile setup at the Blue Mountain Lakes trailhead
Stationary-mobile setup at the Blue Mountain Lakes trailhead

I worked several stations on 20M including WA3WSJ who had hiked up to Kittatinny Mountain for a combined SOTA (W2/NJ-003) and NPOTA activation.  I heard a lot of activity on 30 meters, so I moved there next.  That turned out to be a very productive move.  I finished out my session on 20 meters.  I worked NK1N who was with KB3SBC several miles away at Crater Lake.

The Boschveldt QRPers at Crater Lake. L-R: WB3GCK, WA3WSJ, NK1N, KB3SBC. (Photo by WA3WSJ)
The Boschveldt QRPers at Crater Lake. L-R: WB3GCK, WA3WSJ, NK1N, KB3SBC. (Photo by WA3WSJ)

The skies were starting to look threatening, so I started packing up.  Over 2m simplex, WA3WSJ told me he had started hiking back down to Crater Lake.  I drove over to Crater Lake to join up with the rest of the crew and we soon headed back to the cabin for lunch.  It was a short session but I ended with 21 QSOs.

Once again, we had a great winter QRP getaway at Mohican Outdoor Center.  The Boschveldt QRPers are already making plans for next year.

72, Craig WB3GCK

New Year’s Day NPOTA Activation

ARRL National Parks on the Air logoA few years ago, I started a tradition of going out on January 1st for some QRP portable operating.  Since the ARRL National Parks on the Air (NPOTA) program kicked off today, I headed over to nearby Valley Forge National Historical Park to operate.

I set up in the parking lot for the Wayne’s Woods area of the park.  I picked a secluded corner of the lot so I would be away from hikers and bikers using a nearby trail.  I used my drive-on mast support to support my antenna.  I used a 29.5-foot vertical wire supported by a 31-foot pole.  I laid out two 29.5-foot radials.  One was run around my truck and the other was laid out in a grassy area behind the truck.  The antenna was coax-fed through a 4:1 unun.

My “stationary-mobile” location
My “stationary-mobile” location

I used my FT-817 at 5 watts, along with a Z-817 tuner.  As mentioned in an earlier post, I used the YFKtest logging program on my little Linux netbook computer.

My somewhat messy operating position
My somewhat messy operating position

I started out on 20M and my first contact was with RA1M/MM who was also running QRP.  After making a second contact on 20M things slowed down.  I dropped down to 40M and started calling, “CQ NPOTA.”  It took a while before I got a response.  I was beginning to think I wasn’t going to make the requisite 10 contacts to validate my activation.  Just then, Dave Benson, K1SWL, called from New Hampshire, followed by Jim W1PID.  After Dave spotted me on QRPSPOTS, I had a mini pile-up on my hands.  I’m normally a “search and pounce” kind of operator, so I wasn’t prepared to hear a bunch of stations calling me at the same time!

YFKtest logging software on my Linux netbook computer
YFKtest logging software on my Linux netbook computer

As it turns out, I wasn’t the only Valley Forge activator today.  Fellow QRPer, Walt KB3SBC, was parked on Mount Joy about a mile or so away.  Walt and I worked each other on 2 meters simplex.  Walt was running SSB and had a good morning.  He logged about 38 QSOs until he ran out of paper!

After two hours, I was starting to get hungry and a little chilly.  I packed up and headed home.  I ended my activation with 25 CW QSOs and the one FM contact with Walt.

National Memorial Arch at Valley Forge
National Memorial Arch at Valley Forge

My next activation will be the Delaware Water Gap Recreation Area and Appalachian Trail in New Jersey in a few weeks.  Walt, KB3SBC, will be there also.     This is going to be a fun year!

72, Craig WB3GCK

YFKtest Logger

I’m planning to take part in ARRL’s National Parks on the Air (NPOTA) event next year.  In fact, I plan to activate Valley Forge National Historic Park on New Year’s Day.  It will likely be cold so I plan to operate “stationary-mobile” from the cab of my pickup truck.  I suspect there will be a lot of “chaser” stations so I’m planning to use a computer for logging and sending CW.

I considered a couple of options.  One is to use N3FJP’s ACLog on my Windows laptop.  I use ACLog for my main log and I’m very comfortable with it.  The drawback is that my Windows laptop might be a bit large for the cramped cab of my little truck.  That led me to using my little Acer netbook computer, which runs Ubuntu Linux.

In my search for a contest-type logger for Linux, I tried several programs before stumbling across one called YFKtest.  YFKtest satisfied my three main requirements for a logging program:

  • It has to be simple to use with keyboard input only; I don’t want to have to use a mouse.
  • It needs to provide programmable CW messages and be able to key my transmitter.
  • It has to have the ability to export logs as ADIF files that I can import into my main log.
YFKtest main entry screen
YFKtest main entry screen

Fabian DJ1YFK is YFKtest’s original author while Bob Finch WY9A currently maintains the software.  Since it has been around for a while, the code base is stable.  YFKtest is a PERL program, so it runs under Linux.  It supports a large number of contests, including some QRP contests.  It generates CW over a serial or parallel interface, as well as via Winkey.  It works with the same serial interface that I use with the N3FJP software, so that’s a plus.  If you are so inclined, YFKtest will do rig control using the hamlib utilities. It also generates ADIF, Cabrillo and contest summary files.

YFKtest screenshot showing my custom CW messages
YFKtest screenshot showing my custom CW messages

Installation on Linux was straight-forward.  The user interface is a bit “old school,” compared to other logging software.  It was, however, easy to configure and use.   For NPOTA use, I took the “DXPED.def” definition file for DXpeditions and made a few minor tweaks to it. To give myself some peace of mind, I created a cron job in Linux that automatically backs up my log files to an SD memory card every 15 minutes.

YFKtest is hard coded for “599” or “59” signal reports.  There may be a way to accommodate honest signal reports, but I haven’t explored that yet.  Since LoTW doesn’t use signal reports, this is a non-issue for NPOTA logging.

Bob Finch’s support is top-notch.  During my initial testing with it, I reported a bug in the ADIF files.  In a day or two, Bob uploaded a fix.  You can’t complain about support like that.

So, I’m going to give YFKtest a shot for my New Year’s Day operation.  I’m anticipating a lot of NPOTA activity on the first day and that YFKtest will help me keep up with it!

For more information, visit the YFKtest website.

72, Craig WB3GCK