Sunday, March 25, 2012

Propagation Returns - Slowly

It was very nice this morning to hear European signals once again on 20 meters. I fired up JT65HF this morning and made a handful of contacts. I'm still having issues with this program shutting down when it's attempting to decode multiple signals. I've even set it at a higher priority and still have the issue. The original version I had never experienced this problem but the last few versions have seen the same problem on my XP machine. I can call CQ and sit on a frequency for hours without a shutdown as long as Enable Multi is unchecked. I don't experience this issue with any of my other multitude of programs I run, thankfully.

The sun is returning and the days are getting longer here in Alaska. Temperatures the last few days have reached near the freezing mark, sitting nicely in the mid 30's! March has not been an active month for me on the radio due to propagation and personal obligations. As summer approaches, the rig and shack will fall silent as activities will be moved outdoors. Not that I don't enjoy ham radio but I love summer! As the contest season wraps up, the summer season begins. You will never hear me complain about the midnight sun!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

QSL's From Years Gone By

With the latest round of solar activity that has left the bands mostly quiet here in my part of the world, I have been scrolling through old QSL cards. I have wanted to preserve a few of these cards from years gone by. I have nearly every QSL card received, from my very first QSO to current day. In my nearly 24 years as a ham radio operator and mostly a DXer, I've chased those rare ones like so many others. I proudly hang my DXCC certificates on my shack wall and the one I'm most proud of displays my last DXCC endorsement sticker received, number 300. I have a CW only DXCC certificate which displays my last endorsement sticker received, that being number 275.

 I have more money invested in these cards than I care to think. From the purchase of my personal QSL cards, to airmail envelopes, to return airmail envelopes, not to mention the postage and green stamps or IRC's it took to get them. To the normal person, they are only a post card with some unknown information written on them. But for me, it represents my ham radio timeline. It also represents hundreds of hours spent tuning the bands and participating in often crazy pile-ups and contests. Many times, the easiest part was working the station. The hardest part was obtaining the QSL card or cards.

Remembering the days of stocking the New York phonebook sized Radio Amateur Callbook, using it to look up callsigns to send for QSL cards. I have, which I believe is the last printed copy from 1997, at a cost then of $39.95 for the International edition. There were normally two editions printed, one being the International and the other being the North American. There was no electronic QSL card confirmation process then, so you did it the old fashioned way. It was always exciting to send off QSL cards for new countries and even more exciting when the return envelopes showed up!

QSL Cards Received From Years Gone By
I have so many QSL cards it would take me weeks to scan them all so I have been picking a small handful from my collection to scan and archive. I've also been uploading them to my facebook account, sharing them with my other ham friends. If a ham has been around for a few years, many of these QSL cards will probably look familiar. I've been having fun just looking through, re-reading the information and comments. It's been fun remembering things like Box 88, Moscow, East and West Germany, or the Russian Woodpecker tapping across the bands. Using packet to connect to the local 2 meter BBS to read the bulletins in hopes of getting DX or QSL information. Like a photo which freezes a moment in time forever, a QSL card does the same for ham radio contacts. And like many of my old photos, my QSL cards are kept in a large box tucked in the back of the closet. These QSL cards represent where I've been, propagationally speaking of course, and my contacts with those many countries all around the world. 

Recently the DX World received sad news regarding the passing of Ron Wright, ZL1AMO. Ron may be a Silent Key but his memory lives on through this great hobby, helping many hams like me obtain new countries for our DXCC award. Ron is one of many who I've chased on the bands over the years and for his efforts, like many others, I will be forever grateful.  

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Bands Have Spoken!

It's official
I have tuned the bands about once an hour for the last 7 hours and have not heard one signal! When I turned on my Icom 756PRO, I hit the "Band Condition" button and this is what displayed on the screen. This is a high end option for radios normally used above 60 degrees North. Also optional is the "Flutter Filter" which when depressed, it attaches an add-on to the outgoing transmission giving that strange effect that makes your signal sound like it's traveling through water. Most note this type of signal quality on the cluster by posting signal reports like, "59A", etc. I believe these might come standard on the Icom IC-8800DX.  I know it's not yet April but my April QST should be arriving sometime soon.

The Visibly Green, Silent Sound of Spring
Last weekend was the ARRL DX SSB Contest and I made only a few contacts over the course of the weekend. The bands were rough going here in Alaska. I have the deepest admiration for those Alaska contest stations who stuck it out over the weekend and struggled for each and every QSO. I know this simply by what the band conditions were like here and the amount of QSO's many of them were able to log. I personally don't operate SSB contests much anymore but there is no doubt in my mind, if I had attempted any effort last weekend, it would of been short lived. Contesting takes patience and I have little with poor propagation and even less with SSB. When combining those two elements, I'm normally off doing other things with my weekend.

Funny how things change when it comes to the sun and propagation. We had very little propagation on 10 meters for years. Then, out of the blue, the sun became active and with the increase in Solar Flux Index (SFI), 10 meters sprang to life! We enjoyed 10 meters for months and I know I entered a few contests operating only 10 meters in a single band effort. The sun started to quiet, 10 began to fade as the SFI dropped. But once again, those sunspots are beginning to crackle and make things interesting...

Living so far north, the attenuation effect on the bands during these solar events can leave the bands loudly quiet. The Geomagnetic Activity and absorption due to the effects of a Solar Flare or CME can make you wonder if there might be something wrong with your antenna. It is very possible to tune across each and every band and not hear a CW, digital or SSB signal. Just did that this morning actually.
So what is there for a ham radio operator to do when there is nothing on the bands? Well, step outside and look up! My other hobby is photography and I very much enjoy photographing the Aurora. Thankfully with modern technology, it's easy to see when the AU is visible from your location. Often times, the biggest problem is getting to view the aurora when you know it's directly overhead. Just as the geomagnetic activity can attenuate signals, the clouds above can obscure one of the most amazing light shows you will ever see. With a little luck and clear skies, a northern ham has plenty to do when the bands are quiet. And it appears the current Sunspot #1429 will be making our propagation extremely challenging in the days ahead however, it may bring us the best aurora viewing of the year. My Icom may be quiet but my Olympus will be capturing that silence overhead as the green lights of winter remind me, there is more to life than ham radio.