Monday, March 25, 2013

WSPR'ing & 29,147 DXCC Certificates Later

WSPR 20 Meters
The bands have been less than favorable but I've left my rig on 20 meters with the beam pointed to Europe. I decided to leave WSPR running for a few days this past week to see how well the European path was doing. WSPR is another mode that will have difficulties when decoding signals if there is an auroral presence. But, as the solar shake up calmed, callsigns were beginning to populate on my WSPR screen. I spent more time listening than transmitting but my power output was 10 watts when operating WSPR. I fed that to my 4 element tri-bander, which normally is parked at the 43 foot level on my tower.

Decoding WSPR
 WSPR is a great tool for weak signal propagation testing. Now that we officially entered into Spring (still looks and feels like winter around these parts) propagation will begin to take a different look when it comes to decoding signals. By May, the snow will begin to melt and it will be time to welcome back the return of the midnight sun. I very much enjoy the 24 hours of daylight in June. This enjoyment will keep me from occupying my ham shack but I've done enough of that all winter. As contest season wraps up, my sights will be on getting our camper ready for camping season. My goal is to head out earlier this year and break my portable station out of mothballs. Nothing better than to be camping in a remote location working DX from an unofficial campsite.

The DX talk of late is the operation of XR0YG on Easter Island. I was lucky enough to work the DXpedition team on 20 meter CW last night. Crazy pile-up but the operator was doing an awesome job. I knew I would have my work cut out for me as the pile-up was pretty big. I tried, gave up, tried, gave up and finally snagged em on my 3rd attempt. I hope to get them on a few more bands and modes before they depart. I heard them on 17 meters this past weekend but with my low antenna and power, they were well out of my reach. 

I've caught up with all of my QSL card requests and my next batch of replies will be headed out to the bureau this week. Activity level and QSL reception go hand in hand. At least from my operation here, as activity level directly correlates to how full my Post Office Box gets. 

Our weekly trip to the Post Office yielded a small tube with my name on it. It seems my DXCC certificate has arrived. My very first certificate, number 28,436, was dated February 10th, 1989. Today, I received my first DXCC certificate from this location, numbered 57,583. I also received two, 150 Endorsement Stickers (I assume the League meant to send me a 125 & 150 but instead, sent me two 150's by mistake). I remember sending my QSL cards via Express Mail and doing all the paperwork by hand. Then, patiently waiting for their return. Now, with LOTW, my certificate was achieved simply with a few mouse clicks and referencing my credit card number. Oh how times have changed.

Computers are pretty old around here and our main "family" computer just bit the dust (again). So, I will be in the market for one. Now I just need to decide if I want to stick with a desktop or transition to a laptop. I'm thinking laptop and docking station but it will come down to what I can afford. Thankfully, I had most of the stuff backed up. I'm still hoping I can retrieve my most recent data off of the hard drive. I had installed a second hard drive which was basically a mirror to the first. I think I might rebuild that computer and put it here in the shack. I need more horsepower that my aged shack Dell's can produce. My world is about multitasking and my abilities have been limited to my processor speed and RAM here in the shack. Ham Radio Deluxe (HRD) is my logging program of choice but it taxes my aging computer to no end. Especially if I'm also running DM780 having fun on the digital modes.

I woke up this morning to find 20 meters in pretty good shape toward Europe. It's been snowing all day and most of the night. Working a few stations this morning and waking up to a nice hot cup off coffee helped start the new week off on the right foot. The DXCC certificate sent it to the next level. Now it's time to bundle up and head out into the single digits to plow snow. The calendar might of said "First Day of Spring" on March 20th but by Alaskan standards, that does not happen before April 20th. Officially it's here but unofficially, we have a month or more.   

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Propagational Time-Out?

HAARP - My Icom is no match for high solar winds today!
Spaceweather has been a bit of a topic the last 24 hours or so. We are currently experiencing the effects of a Coronal mass ejection (CME). The increase in solar wind also brings an increase of absorption. Saturday was not too bad when it came to band conditions. I have a short weekend, so I opted to do less radio on Saturday and set aside a bit more time on Sunday. Well, as luck would have it, the solar wind increased and when I woke up early this morning, there was not one signal on any of the bands. 

JT65Flat Screen (JT65-HF)
 As noon on Sunday approached, the bands did not even show signs of getting any better. I left my rig sitting on the 20 meter JT65 frequency and not a single station was decoded all morning. Here is the screen shot I took early this afternoon local time (to the right). JT65 is a great weak signal mode however, when the bands are this bad due to geomagnetic activity, not even the weak signal stuff will do any good. I have found also that JT65 does have trouble decoding signals with Auroral Influence (AI) and you can easily tell by the signal signature on the waterfall, if a signal does have any AI. 

Auroral Influence (JT65-HF)
The example of the AI to the left shows what JT65 signals look like on  the waterfall of the JT65-HF software. The signals looks as if it's "smeared" and not well defined. And as you can see, the last decoded transmission was at 2156z and I show nothing decoded  at 2159z, but it's apparent that signals are on the band. Personally, I think Olivia seems to function the best under these type of rough band conditions. PSK31 is not even an option with bands this tough, as I won't decode a signal. But as I mentioned earlier this morning during a conversation I was having on Twitter, when I moved to Alaska, the term "Radio Blackout" hit home. 

Auroral Oval as seen from Ovation Aurora
So, what is a ham to do when the bands are dead quiet? Well in my case, my weekly trip to the Post Office yielded plenty of direct QSL card requests including a nice full envelope of cards from the Alaska QSL Bureau. I also received the latest CQ and QST magazines! So, I have plenty to keep me busy. From what I'm reading, I think it will be a few days before the bands heal. I do have my camera battery charged up and ready for some auroral displays. I read last night, it was pretty good. We have been experiencing very clear and colder weather but the clear skies at night will make for some great aurora viewing. So, I will try to stay up tonight and see if the St. Patrick's Day green will extend into the heavens above. With the Spring Equinox just a few days away, this is when most will tell you it's the best time to view the aurora above. 

Photo ©KL8DX 
If I had to attach a visual representation of what it's like to operate ham radio during this type of band conditions, I would have to say the photo to the left does just that. And oddly, these tough conditions normally hit on the weekends! But I hope that maybe, just maybe, we will see in increase in the solar flux and 10 meters will once again come alive. I love that band! And in speaking of 10 meters, I read this morning in the March edition of CQ Magazine that I will have a bit more wallpaper to enjoy. It appears that I managed to take top spot during the 2012 CQ WW DX RTTY Contest on 10 meters, low power, single band, single operator, Alaska. My wife tells me she can always tell when I get my new magazines. My bathroom visits tend to take much longer but thankfully, we have two bathrooms in our house. 

So, when it comes to operating ham radio during high absorption weekends, I feel like the moose in the photo above I took here at Denali. But a bad day of ham radio is always better than a good day at work, right? 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Straight - For the Key & Ice

Myself participating in SKCC's WES March 2013 
SKCC had their monthly Weekend Sprintathon (WES) this past weekend. I've participated in several of these over the last few years and find them extremely enjoyable. This WES was just a bit different as the Bonus station was the one and only, W1AW! You can read a bit more about this event on SKCC's main page. I think the neatest part of this was the fact that the team of 9 operators were going to be using Hiram Percy Maxium's Spark Key over the course of the entire weekend. This weekend was also promoting QRP operating (although I opted for QRO as band conditions were a bit tough for a large part of the weekend for me). Using a Straight Key for me is like taking a trip back in time. This is where it all began! I can envision that telegraph operator sending messages back in the days of the wild west. Or the telegraph operators relaying vital information during World War I and World War II. But to know the history behind the key that you're using and know who had used it, well that's taking manual Morse to the next level in my opinion!

I love Morse Code and it is by far my most favorite mode of communication that I use on the ham bands. It's the only "other" language that I know. When I first got into ham radio, knowing Morse Code was a requirement. To obtain the highest license level available to ham radio operators (Extra Class), you had to take a 20 Word Per Minute (WPM) Morse Code test, and pass it! Morse Code is no longer a requirement to obtain your ham radio license. This old form of communication is just as popular today as it has been for many, many years. 

My Navy Flameproof behind the keyboard
I knew my time would be somewhat limited this weekend but I also knew I was going to participate one way or another. My goal at the very least was to locate and contact W1AW. I was excited to actually work W1AW on two bands this weekend, 15 & 20 Meters. Yes, I've worked W1AW many times before and have even operated W1AW. But this weekend trumped any previous contacts I've had with W1AW due to the circumstances and of course the KEY being used at the other end. I'm not sure if Hiram's key was in fact the one that was used for our QSO but again, I thought it was a great way to promote Morse Code and the use of Straight Key's. Over the course of the short time I operated on Saturday, and what I was able to operate on Sunday, I made 96 straight key QSO's. It was great to see so many operating QRP as well. All in all, SKCC and W1AW made this past weekend one to remember.

Looking toward Sugarloaf Mountain & Mt. Dora
As mentioned earlier, Saturday was beautiful here in the Interior of Alaska. Suffering from cabin fever, my wife and I accompanied by our family beagle, headed out onto Otto Lake, the lake we live next to. We have done this now for the past few years, walking the lake from one end to the other. It was breezy but warm and the ice was still 3-4' thick, plenty safe. 
Mt. Healy

I sacrificed a few hours of operating time to enjoy the great outdoors. The sun is slowly returning to Alaska, so the longer days are very refreshing. It's been another long, dark and cold winter. Now that temperatures can rise to the 30+ above, we will open windows and doors and venture outdoors to enjoy the fresh, clean air! The photos here are ones I took from our foot trek across Otto Lake. Can you actually blame me for giving up radio time to enjoy such a beautiful afternoon? 

Looking back toward our QTH
 Even though we are far from seeing the end of winter here in Alaska, it really won't be long before the ice begins to melt and all this solid form of water returns to liquid form. In just a few months, people will be enjoying the lake again and the sounds and smell of spring will be in the air. When this seasonal change takes place, I will end up powering off the shack and spending much more time outdoors enjoying all that Alaska has to offer.
View looking NW on Otto Lake
We enjoy camping season and are very much looking forward to hooking to our travel trailer and heading out! Rest assured, I will be dragging along my portable equipment as it serves a two-fold purpose. There are many places we travel that have no cellular service so it's reassuring when you still have a means of communication. And secondly, I will be looking forward to operating /P from various camping locations once again. It's so nice to get away to remote places where there is no man made noise for miles and miles. Like using a straight key, it's nice to travel to places where there is no cellular service, no internet and experience life as it was not so long ago. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Nested But Colorful

Sunset @ ARS KL8DX & KL8SU 03/07/2013
In my previous post I mentioned the Chinook that was bringing strong winds to the Interior of Alaska. It has arrived but the forecasted 70 mph did arrive but the highest gust we saw at our house was only 61 mph. The storm is exiting north quickly and I expect that by Friday night we might be back to calm. These wind storms can last for days but thankfully this one is moving through quickly. I'm hopeful to be sending the beam back to the top of my tower in the next 24 hours.

In this photo, you can see our Mosley TA-34-XL nested just above our roof level. I happened to catch a beautiful sunset and was able to snap a few photos before it disappeared. With the wind, there were lots of Lenticular clouds all around us. I love this type of cloud formation and we see it frequently in this area as we receive these strong winds and are surrounded by mountains. We are often treated to colorful sunrises and sunsets here. Just one of the tough parts of living in such a beautiful place. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Dropped In My Log and Then Dropped To My Roof

TX5K Confirmation of our QSO!
I was hoping for a chance to work the Clipperton Island DXpedition before they shut down. I've not had any success as propagation just seemed as if it were not in my favor. I had read emails from other Alaska stations that they were successful in logging the DXpedition but I was still unsuccessful. That changed today. 

I've been following the weather discussion here in Alaska and watching a Chinook working its way up from the Gulf of Alaska. We are forecasted to receive 70 mph wind gusts beginning late tonight and through tomorrow. I knew I would be cranking my beam down to roof level for the remainder of the week. Today was my last real day to take advantage of my antenna at its normal operating height of 43 feet. When I settled in after work, I tuned the bands and tweaked the antenna and I was excited to hear TX5K with a strong signal on 20 meters. It was time to settle in and join the rather large crowed who were attempting to do the very same.

The first order of business was to set my Icom 756PRO up for split operating and using my Dual Watch (The dual watch* function allows you to receive 2 signals on the same band simultaneously), attempt to find the operators "pattern" as he was working split (work stations above his calling frequency). I finally found the operators pattern after listening for several minutes. I lined up my secondary VFO and sent my callsign a few times with pauses in between. It was not long before I heard the operator sending my callsign and a report. I returned the report and after hearing TX5K send "TU" (Thank you), I sat back in just enjoyed the sound of the pile-up of others attempting to log Clipperton Island. 

Fellow blogger / contester  KA3DRR mentioned the website that the DXpedition crew were using for uploading logged contacts in one of his previous posts. I ventured on to their website and holy crap, there it was, our QSO, in real time (about 45-60 seconds later as the website refreshed)! I happened to see that the same team was also active on 20 meter SSB (Single Side Band). I ventured up to their SSB frequency, set up my radio and on the second call, I had TX5K logged yet again! 

I decided that since I was on a lucky streak, I would try to find them on another band. Their website showed them active on 15 meter CW. I found them with a very strong signal. I tried a few times but the operator then was calling for "RA" (Russia) stations only. He worked a few VK stations (Australia)  and I attempted a few more times but the operator again called for "RA" stations only. By the time his run was over, my chances of logging TX5K on 15 slipped away. 

After confirming that I made it into the TX5K logbook on two modes, I headed out and lowered my beam to just above our roof level. The winds can blow and I don't expect much of a reprieve in the weather until after the DXpedition has left the island. But thankfully, the planets lined up and taking a few extra minutes to listen and form a strategy payed off. I'm a small station so it's a great feeling when I can log a new entity especially when I made it through the masses calling the operator on the other end. The operator I worked (unknown) was doing a great job on CW! There was not as many calling when I worked them on SSB. Thanks to the group and all those who made this DXpedition possible. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Global USPS Forever Stamps
My wife and I made a trip into the Post Office yesterday to mail out several Easter and a few birthday packages via USPS. While there, I was cashing in an IRC (International Reply Coupon) that I recently received for a QSL request. I spotted a few sheets of the new Global Forever Stamps and I snagged them up. I still get lots of QSL requests from abroad, so I felt this would be a good investment. I read about this a short time ago on the web and I for one, am glad to see this available. They go for $1.10 (USD) for one or $22.00 for a sheet.  

We rely heavily on the United States Postal Service here in rural Alaska. There is no Fed Ex or UPS delivery, only mail. We can get the other two, but those items are turned over to the Postal Service or contractor for delivery.  The cheapest way to send and receive packages to and from the Interior of Alaska is USPS. There has been lots of press lately about the financial situation of the Postal Service, mostly negative. A revenue based operation that has seen their income stream dwindle due to modern technology. From the amount of credit card solicitations we still get by mail along with the other junk mail, you gotta wonder how bad off they would be without that garbage. I for one, especially living here, am very thankful for the USPS. Even though it can take days to get packages, they can arrive looking like they went through a war zone and were run over by a dump truck, it's still our best bang for the buck. Thankfully, some ham radio stores understand this and will ship items to Alaska via USPS. Sadly, a few stores do not. So, they don't get my business when I feel the urge to stimulate the economy. Even many postings on eBay will say "Continental United States Only" or "Lower 48 States Only" and oddly enough, USPS Priority Mail is an option. Yes, Alaska is a DXCC entity but the United States Postal Service does deliver here! Flat Rate is Flat Rate, even to Alaska (have you seen the commercial?)! So, to the Postal Service, thanks! We are glad you are here. And to those who will ship USPS for us here in remote parts of Alaska, "Thank You!" The United States Postal Service might not be here forever but their stamps will last that long! Or so they say...

Friday, March 1, 2013


I was a bit behind on my latest LOTW upload and upon entering into the website, it told me that I had one message pending. Seems I forgot about my DXCC application and the message told me that it was finished. When I checked my status, I found the following as shown to the left.
Since I applied for my DXCC, it just so happens that I added another entity to my list as seen to the right. I have not chased the DXpeditions like I used to but if opportunity knocks, I will sure try to open the DX door. I can't compete with the big stations but if a new one happens to be in the Pacific or west of here, I can normally be successful in adding that new one to my logbook. The thrill of the hunt is fun as long as the pile-up remains orderly. All to often things get out of hand and now that technology spots a CQ'n station within seconds, it does not take long before the crowd arrives. But if the DXpedition is well organized and the operator controls the masses well, chasing a new one can sure be fun. I will continue my quest to add new entities to my list. Not all of them use LOTW so this is not an accurate reflection of my total confirmed. I will worry about the paper QSL's at some later date, much later. And speaking of DXpeditions, make sure you check out the latest blog by my buddy Scot, KA3DRR! 

Our days are getting longer and warmer, so my operating is starting to dwindle a bit. Now this weekend, with the increase in the solar wind, the bands have been totally (yes, totally) dead here. Having taken the day off of work, my initial plans changed so the dead radio has helped keep me focused on our never ending home improvement projects. Once the weather warms up enough, I plan on working on my low band wire antenna's which have taken a beating this winter. Right now, I'm operational on the high bands only.  

My remaining updated weekend plans will leave little time for radio. With the crappy news out of Washington today, it was nice to log into the LOTW website and receive a bit of good news.