Monday, August 23, 2010

KL1SF & KL1MF via APRS, The Final Alaskan Chapter

I spent a large part of today watching as Sean (KL1SF) and Mindy (KL1MF) made their final rounds in Fairbanks. Sean has been heavily involved in APRS for several years and ironically, it's APRS that really made me realize that they were not returning (lump in throat moment). Yes, we have talked about their new jobs and them relocating for the past few months but today, it really hit home. Watching them leave Fairbanks for the last time (as noted in the APRS map screen shot) really drove it home for me that they were on their way to beginning their new life in the lower 48.

Good friends can be hard to come by but Sean and Mindy have been just that. Extremely sad to see them go but we totally understand why. Sean and I met back in the early to mid 90's at the Ottawa County Sheriff's Office in Northern Ohio. I worked there as a Deputy Sheriff and ironically, Mindy's father was my boss. It seemed that Sean and I were destined to be friends from the beginning.

The story we enjoy telling about the beginning of our friendship all stems from ham radio and Skywarn.  I belonged to Skywarn in Ottawa County and I had a new alpha pager I carried with me. For those that remember, when pagers first made it big, they were a small unit that displayed only numbers. Then, with modern technology, pagers became alphanumeric. I could receive text messages on my pager as well as weather information. Since we were known to have several severe storms throughout any given summer, I really enjoyed this new device. Being involved with Skywarn at the time even gave me a few bucks off the monthly bill! It also fit right in my with law enforcement and fire / EMS duties. 

Anyhow, Sean saw that I carried this "cool" pager and we started to talk about radios and electronics. Sean was not involved with ham radio as yet but it was obvious to me he sure would make a great ham! The friendship we have enjoyed all these years began way back which was instigated by a small paging device.

Sean became involved with ham radio and he actually lived at the opposite end of the county that I lived in (Ottawa). We worked the same shift (midnights) so if we were not talking on the radio at work, we were talking on the radio while at home. I went on to work for other agencies but the Sheriff's Office happened to dispatch for all that I worked for (Sean was a dispatcher). Sean and I would work UHF/VHF contests together and he would leave me in the dust most of the time. Sean had the 222 advantage. I only operated 2 and 432 but I never did mind losing to "the homey".

At the time, my sister and her family lived in Iceland. I had been to visit my sister before but asked Sean if he wanted to accompany me on my next trip. Sean and I got licenses from Iceland with the help of KE4HTS, who was stationed there working with my brother-in-law at the time. It just so happened that Sean accompanied me on my next two trips! We had lots of fun and Sean drug his portable station with him so we could operate from Keflavik. Other than now being in Alaska, that was my only other experience at being "DX".

Sean and Mindy left for Alaska back in 2000 and I remember being extremely bummed that my close friend was going to live so far away. I was excited to communicate with Sean on 17 meters for most of their trip across the lower 48 as they headed to Washington where they were catching the ferry in Bellingham. The bands did not favor any further communications until Sean got his station going after they had arrived in Alaska. After hearing of their adventures and keeping in close touch with Sean and Mindy (not to mention their photos) we decided to head up to Alaska and visit them during the summer of 2002.

When my wife, youngest daughter and I headed for Alaska, we flew into Anchorage and I remember how taken back I was with the landscape as we left the airport to start out trek north.  The drive was just breathtaking and we arrived at Denali very late. Sean was working the afternoon / late shift in the dispatch center so the timing could not have been more perfect. We followed Sean home and the next several days we spent with them seeing all the sights in and around Denali, not to mention Seward! We had hoped to see Mount McKinley (Denali) but the weather just did not cooperate. On the day that we left Alaska, Denali showed itself in all its glory! The south side of the mountain was visible all the way to Anchorage. My daughter made the comment, "I think it's a sign we should stay". Well, she knew something, as it was about a year and a few months later we arrived to Alaska.

We have had many fun adventures in Alaska with Sean and Mindy and we have watched their family grow. They have two boys and we are so glad we had the last 7 years with them. So many great memories and lots of fun times in the Alaskan backcountry. We know that we will see them again at some point as our lives will hopefully take us on similar adventures. Our paths will cross as fate will be in our favor, unlike the propagation in Alaska.

So, to the Fielding's, thanks for the wonderful memories, best of luck at your new jobs and keep in touch. Ham radio has been the apex of this great adventure and I have the photos and QSL cards to prove it.

The Bus at Cody Pass, 2010

Sunday, August 22, 2010

KL1SF-3 and the KL7KC Healy Repeater Fall Silent

There is a popular location for antenna's not far from Healy, located at the Usibelli Repeater Site. This site has a great view of Healy and has line of sight communications into Fairbanks. Topping out in the area of 3800 feet, this wind blasted mountain top has been the home to some ham radio activity, or it was until this weekend.

KL1SF has had an APRS Digi at this location for several years. This has allowed many a visitor running APRS to be heard and relayed into Sean's I-gate as they travel north and south on the George Parks Highway (RT 3). This was also a very reliable link to Fairbanks. APRS has grown very popular as many people had packet equipment from the early days and this was / is a perfect way to keep those TNC's working. 

As in life, all good things must come to an end and that is what happened this weekend with KL1SF-3 located on "Antenna Hill" overlooking Healy. Sean and his family are relocating to the Grand Canyon and his equipment is going with him. Sean and I had not been up to check on his equipment for at least two years. We access the area by ATV and depending on the time of year, the ride can be (and normally is) not for the beginning or faint of heart. Our recent dry weather allowed an easy transition up to the repeater site and Saturday, August 21st, 2010 Sean's APRS Digi went silent. Sean unplugged the equipment and took down his Cushcraft 124WB and we carried it down the mountain with us. I know it was a sad day for Sean but you will once again see him active on APRS from Arizona, I'm sure. His packets will be heard once again in the coming weeks.

I was deep into the packet craze many moons ago and I have a TNC on the shelf. I have plans of filling the gap in Sean's absence. It will not have the range or coverage that Sean's digi had (yes, I could use the same location but getting there can be extremely challenging especially in the winter months when I have no way to sled up there) but I'm hoping to fill some of the void. In the coming weeks, I plan on firing up my packet station and putting it to use once again. My KPC-3 has been silent on the shelf and I'm sure it will be glad to be brought back to life. I should have a pretty good path to Nenana so I'm hoping that this will give coverage from Nenana south, possibly south of Denali National Park's main entrance.

Last year Sean and I were asked about removing the KL7KC repeater which was also in the same location as Sean's APRS equipment. This repeater had apparently been having technical issues and it was determined that it should be removed.  Possibly as Sean, KL1SF had a two meter repeater that covered Healy for the last few years anyhow. Sean and I had plans of removing the KL7KC repeater last fall but the weather beat us and conditions deteriorated to the point we could not make the trip. After making the trip up to remove Sean's APRS equipment, I wanted to make a trip back up the following day and retrieve the KL7KC repeater as the weather forecast looked promising. 

Sean was busy preparing for his move so my wife and I made our way up to Antenna Hill. It did not take me long to unplug the repeater and remove it from it's resting place. We carried it out to my ATV where it was carefully placed into my ATV trailer for the trip back to my QTH. The ride is a bit rough
and an old comforter we had helped make the trip more comfortable for the retired repeater. I was glad it fit but being as large as it was, it was not very light. This made for an interesting decent down the mountain but we safely made it by taking our time and my wife watching from behind for any potential problems. It was only a matter of a few hours after our departure from home that we made it back with the repeater which will be returned to the rightful owner.

So in one weekend, three ham radio related communication stations fall silent. KL1SF's APRS Digi, his 2 meter repeater, and also the KL7KC repeater. This is a small town with very few active hams. I'm not sure many will notice the change but change is inevitable. It's was a sad day for sure, to see a close friend and his family leave. Not only will I NOT see them at work, I won't be seeing their APRS activities here locally any longer. But, I'm looking forward to tracking Sean's progress as he heads down to the lower 48. APRS is a great tool for that very reason. He may no longer live just a few miles away but with ham radio, distance is really not a problem. We will just be communicating with another band, moving from 440 to HF. I am looking forward to the day that Sean gets his station back on the air from his new location. I'm not a big SSB fan but that is about to change (as Sean does not operate CW). Safe travels my friend and enjoy the DX that you have missed out on while living in Alaska.  Yes, I'm looking forward to hearing the stories of you working 10 and 6 meters again and possibly 2 and 432! The aurora curtain will no longer keep you from filling your log but don't forget, spin that antenna north from time to time as your long time friend will be looking for our next QSO.