Contest Expedition to Prince of Wales Island, Alaska.

by Paul Kiesel, K7CW

In 1970, the then moderator of the World Above 50 MHz column for QST Magazine, Bill Smith, then K0CER (now W0WOI), drove his pickup with camper to Ketchikan, Alaska to take part in the ARRL June VHF QSO Party. Bill, using the call KL7ABR, operated the contest in Ketchikan because there were no roads anywhere back then. But Ketchikan lies up close to mountains which block any attempt to transmit to the east. So, Bill was able to make contacts to West Coast states only via meteor scatter and sporadic-E. There was propagation in other directions, probably, but the mountains kept him from making contacts in those directions. I was hoping to better the effort made by KL7ABR.

Ever since that trip by Bill, I have wanted to do the same. Over the last three years, I had been strongly considering the idea of doing the June Contest in Southeastern Alaska. I had discussed this with Kevin O'Connell, KL0RG, and others, but made no decision to prepare for such a trip until 2006, when I retired. I called Kevin early in 2007 and told him that I had decided that this is the year for the contest effort. Kevin, an avid VHF weak signal afficionado, immediately volunteered and we became a two-man crew for the competition. We would use the DX Scavengers Radio Club callsign, KL7FF.

In the meantime, I discussed the upcoming activity with Ed Cole, KL7UW, who is making great efforts to popularize weak signal VHF in Alaska. Ed thought it a great idea to submit a club entry from Alaska. In order to get things going, Ed took steps to make the Alaska VHF Up Group an official organization and obtain club affiliation with the ARRL. Ed also published information on his web page, , which gave information about our contest plans. He also contacted many Alaskan amateurs and vigorously promoted the VHF contest effort and weak signal VHFing, in general. Unfortunately, the affiliation didn't arrive in time for the contest, but interest in the activity was still raised. Excellent job, Ed.

Kevin and I discussed possible locations in Southeastern Alaska. Of primary importance was the necessity of having a clear shot with low takeoff angle to Canada and the United States. I did a lot of Internet research, seeking possible accommodations. I made many phone calls to owners of vacation and hunting cabins. Some had electricity, but most had unacceptable radio horizons. Finally, I located a cabin near the eastern shore of Prince of Wales Island, near the town of Thorne Bay, in grid locator CO35rq.  From the published Internet photos and from discussions with the caretaker, it appeared that all necessary specifications would be met. We needed to know, for sure, though, that we would have a clear shot to VE and W. A good horizon in the direction of South Central Alaska would be a major plus. At the beginning of May, I flew to Ketchikan to check the cabin out. I met Kevin, who unfortunately had work commitments. We were able to take the Inter-Island Ferry to Prince of Wales Island and visit the cabin, however. We immediately saw that the cabin suited all of our needs and we made arrangements with the caretaker, Tim Lindseth to spend 5 nights there around the dates of the contest. I then flew back home.

I had planned initially to drive through British Columbia to Prince Rupert and then take the ferry to Ketchikan, then another ferry to Prince of Wales Island. The idea was to take my radio and pass out rare grid locators along the route to the deserving. But, when I checked ferry schedules, I found that I would have had to spend a total of 5 extra days just waiting in Ketchikan if I had gone that route. Instead, I decided to take the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry from Bellingham, WA to Ketchikan and the mirror image route, in return. That way, I would have only one day to burn in Ketchikan. The trip on the AMHS vessel is really a pleasant cruise that takes about one and a half days. The ferry route follows the Inside Passage and is very scenic with mountains and fjords along side and virgin forests as far as the eye can see. Lots of wildlife, too, with humpback and blue whales and orcas and bald eagles. I chose not to get a stateroom. Brave folks can sleep under the solarium on the bridge deck. It's open to the outside, but has heating elements mounted above, so you don't get cold at night. It's a good thing that I chose to take the ferry. As it turned out, there was a large fatality mud slide across the highway between Prince George and Prince Rupert, BC that caused the highway to be closed for several days. If I had taken the land route, I would not have gotten to the cabin in time to operate the contest.

Since I paid to take my pickup on the ferry, I was able to transport anything that I desired from home to Alaska. I took a large portable fan, all my non-perishable food, tower section, rotator and mast. I took extra coax, coax connectors and adapters, extra power strips, extension cords, rope, radios, 2-meter antenna, etc. I didn't have to decide what to leave behind because there was plenty of room for everything that occurred to me to take. I had already shipped some things to Alaska on the barge. Things like the 6-meter amplifier and 6-meter antenna. When I returned to Washington, I brought everything back with me in the truck, with the exception of the amplifier, which stayed with Kevin.

We got to the cabin on the afternoon of the June 7. The weather was beautiful when we arrived, so there was no hurry to get everything inside. We had allowed to have the afternoon and evening of the 7th, all day the 8th and the morning of the 9th to get ready for the contest. But, no matter how much you prepare, some things won't go as smoothly as you desire. In our case, I had forgotten to bring my climbing belt to use in mounting the 6-meter beam. I ended up using a few loops of rope around the tower to hold me to it as I lifted the beam over the top of the mast. This was not pleasant. We also had trouble with the T/R sequencer, which caused us some anxious moments just before the contest began.

We got going in the contest on 2-meters and 6-meters, the only bands we had. It didn't take long to start making contacts, but the only propagation mode that we had at the time was meteor scatter. In fact, this was the way it was to be for the entire contest, with the exception of two stations in Eastern Washington and the stations in South Central Alaska that we worked via sporadic-E. The stations that we worked via sporadic-E all had strong consistent signals over long periods of time. When fading occurred, it was very slow. We did work on FM one station on 2m that was located in Ketchikan in grid locator CO45. He was the only station we worked on a non-weak signal mode.

The band that holds the most interest for me is 6-meters, so most of my planning was centered around that band. But, I remembered how exciting it was when I worked my first KL7 (yes, it was Kevin) on 2-meters during the Leonids Meteor Shower a few years ago. Kevin volunteered to bring his 2-meter stuff, which included a 400 watt brick amplifier. I brought up the 12-element 2-meter yagi that Kevin had recently purchased. We talked about the probability of making CW or SSB meteor scatter QSOs on 2m during the contest. The Arietids Meteor Shower would be going, but probably could not be counted on to give long enough bursts to get information across in a limited amount of time. We decided to try the WSJT mode FSK441 and, in a few announcements that I made to reflectors before I left, I offered to run skeds during the contest on 2m. We got several requests for skeds using FSK441 and a couple for SSB and CW. We completed with everyone who attempted FSK441 contacts with us on 2m. We did complete one contact on SSB on 2m. All totalled, we made a whopping 16 contacts in 9 grid locators on 2m. Stations in South Central Alaska, Southeastern Alaska, British Columbia, Western Washington, Eastern Washington, Oregon and Idaho were worked. All  but the FM contact were via meteor scatter. This success far exceeded anyone's dreams and has to represent a record-breaking performance. Kevin found that it was easy to get contacts. We had encouraged folks without skeds to tailend after skeds. They did, and they also answered our CQs. We found that it was not hard at all to make contacts on 2m from Southeastern Alaska! Folks realized that it paid off to go to the trouble to get digital interfaces connected to their rigs and to download WSJT. (Actually, we worked 17 stations total on 2-meters, having had a FSK441 QSO with a station on June 8.)

6-meters was a little disappointing because of the scarcity of sporadic-E. We were kind of hoping that, if there were no sporadic-E, then maybe we would have some aurora. A strong aurora would make things very exciting. But, alas, meteor scatter turned out to be the predominant propagation mode for us in the contest. And, so it was on 6-meters. We had 74 QSOs in 27 grid locators on 6-meters. Not many contacts there. But, it's not because we didn't try. There were quite a few partial QSOs that didn't get logged because we didn't get a "roger" from the other station. We did not work a single station beyond one-hop sporadic-E maximum range. This band ran 600 watts and an 8-element yagi.

The day after the contest, I spent several hours working what stations I could on 6m. There were some single hop sporadic-E contacts made into Montana and South Central Alaska and a few double-hop sporadic-E contacts were made into the Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas area. I worked a few stations on meteor scatter, too.

The contest, for us, was a success because we found that it was possible to get on from Southeastern Alaska and work into areas other than the narrow West Coast corridor that you would be restricted to by operating out of Ketchikan. It is still difficult to find a suitable location because of the undeveloped, mountainous character of the whole region. 2-meter contacts between Southeastern Alaska and the "Lower 48" are now shown to be an easy thing when using fast digital modes.

I would like to thank Kevin, KL0RG; Ed, KL7UW; Bill, W0WOI, Tim & Teresa Lindseth and all the weak signal VHF enthusiasts who have offered help, suggestions and encouragement towards this trip. I think we all got a lot out of it. I hope it happens again soon!

Below are some photos taken during the trip, along with some comments: - Paul, K7CW on deck of the M/V Malaspina on the way to Ketchikan - The Dryad Lighthouse, just north of Bella Bella, BC - Big Salt Lake, west side of Prince of Wales Island, Alaska - Kevin, KL0RG at US Forest Service rest stop between Klawock and Thorne Bay, Alaska - Kevin, KL0RG at 2-meter position, KL7FF - Paul, K7CW at 6-meter position, KL7FF - The cabin. The 2-meter yagi can be seen mounted on the porch on the right side. - Here's the cabin as seen from the southeast. The 2-meter yagi is on the porch to the left side. The 6-meter yagi is in the right forground. The small dish is the satellite Internet antenna. The other dishes are various satellite television antennas. All of this was 100 percent working while we were there. - This is what happens, sometimes, when you only have two people to take down a tower with rotator, mast, antenna and cables still attached. - The Inter-Island Ferry Authority ferry M/V Prince of Wales. This is the vessel used for passenger service between Ketchikan and Hollis on Prince of Wales Island. - Tlingit Indian clan house located at Totem Bight State Heritage Park, north of Ketchikan. - This is a bear and his footprints. Totem Bight State Park. - There is constant traffic of these floatplanes in the Ketchikan harbor. They are used both for scheduled service to the many islands and resorts and also for hire. - There are always multiple cruise ships to be seen in Ketchikan Harbor during the summer months. I've seen as many as 4 at one time. - Here is a view of the cruise ships docked right at old town Ketchikan. There's a lot to see and buy here. - A couple of hours out of Ketchikan on the M/V Columbia, on the way home. Nice sunset in Canadian waters. - If you don't get a stateroom, you can sleep under the solarium. It has a windowed roof and is open to the weather in the direction of the stern. People lay out their sleeping bags on the lounge chairs. It's not so rough: See the heating elements mounted on the ceiling? I used the solarium for my sleeping quarters. It's fun!

Hope you enjoyed the account and the photos.

73, Paul, K7CW