Home of more Whitetail Deer, Black Bears, Spruce, Apple & Birch trees than people, the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan is one of the more sparsely populated areas in the lower 48 states. For this reason K3TKJ decided to make a concerted effort at activating this part of the country on 6 meters while visiting Mike AA9ZT in Baraga. On the Southern end of Keweenaw Bay in EN56, Baraga sits tantilizingly close to Keweenaw County in the Northern-most portion of the UP, which juts out almost into the center of Lake Superior. The North-Eastern most portion of this mini-peninsula is within EN67, a grid seldom activated on 6 meters, or any other VHF band. During one of our almost nightly chats on 50MHz, Al invited me to join him on the trip. Well. Needless to say I was excited, and after pounding out the particulars with my understanding wife, we set out to gather the gear necessary to assemble a respectable (but portable) 6 meter station with which to operate.
Always the resourceful engingeer, within a few days Al had all the makings of a great portable 6 meter station centered around his pickup truck. To hold my DXpedition-dedicated 5 element M2 6M5X, Al utilized a "flat roof mount" sattelite antenna fixture. Commerically available in various dimensions, the one we chose was 4 foot high (tripod) antenna test stand attached to a flat steel-framed base measuring approximately 4 x 4 feet. The base has sides approximately 2 inches tall with which to accomodate 2 rows of 4 cinder blocks each, one row for each side, providing approximately 200 lbs of ballast & lateral stability to the stand, which fit nicely in the forward portion of the bed of Al's pickup. For mobile operation on the drive, Al utilized a 6 foot tall mast made of galvanized electrical conduit to which was attached an M2 6 meter loop. For stationary operation from EN67, we modified a 36 foot radio shack telescoping mast by removing the lower 2" diameter section. After a bit of minor grinding on the very tips of the inner-portion of the tripod legs where they join the top-most mast clamp, the (now 28 foot) mast fit very nicely into the test-stand base on the back of the truck. After affixing a TV rotor and the 6 foot section of conduit to the push-up mast, the 5 element beam could be safely raised 28 feet above ground level from the bed of the pickup (counting truck-bed height above ground). Though greater height was achievable, we found that by extending only the larger section of telescoping mast we substantially increased the stability of the tubing. This, along with 4 guy ropes we attached to the mast below the rotor & secured to tie-points on the pickup bed & front frame, was to later prove a wise decision. We also brought along a step-ladder with which to assist in manhandling the assembled 15 foot push-up mast/rotor/mast/antenna combination in place.
For a rig, Al outfitted his FT 847 for mobile use, and I brought along my IC 756 Pro to serve as a backup rig in case Murphy came along for the operation. Al's expertise ensured that we had minimal vehicle noise to contend with while mobile & that for barefoot operation all necessary power was safely available to the radio. Experience has taught us however that 100 watts, particularly under marginal conditions, is really insufficient for what we intended to do, so an amplifier was considered an absolute necessity for the trip. After considering our options, we eventually decided on Al's "spare" Swan 6B, which with a pair of 3-500Zs is capable of 1 kw output. The Swan, along with a Bird Watt Meter, was packed in a padded, watertight case for the trip, and N3NO generously provided us with a 3kw 120/240 generator for our use in Michigan. Al assembled a number of long powercords to allow us to move the somewhat noisy generator away from our station, and prepared extra feedlines "just in case," and we were ready to go.
We departed from my QTH on the Chesapeake in FM18 at around 8:30am on Wednesday, August 20, expecting a 15 to 20 hour drive to EN67. This turned out not to be the case. Our chosen route took us through Pennsylvania, and we experienced significant delays along the way, particularly on the Turnpike. Our average speed along the early part of the route was very low, burdened as it was by many toll booths & road construction. We determined early on our return route would avoid the high tolls & poor roads. In West Virginia, Ohio & Southern Michigan we were able to make decent headway, but despite the interstates, our conversations with Michigan hams along the way revealed that travel time on the Upper Peninsula would not be what we were expecting. Though not originally a part of the plan, we decided to spend the night in Gaylord, about 50 miles South of the Mackinac Bridge which bisects Lake Huron & Lake Michigan, and make a final leasurely push to Baraga in the morning. After a good nights sleep, we crossed the bridge, but soon found another long drive lay ahead of us, as there is no interstate highway system in the UP, at least by Eastern standards. Virtually all of the major roads are single lane, with only a few enticing miles of double-lane passing available throughout the entire Peninsula. The 200 mile drive to Baraga took close to 5 hours.
When we arrived in Baraga, we called Mike, who immediately came home from work to greet us & give us a tour of the telecom in his charge. Afterwards, though not a part of our plans originally, we discussed with Mike the possibility of heading immediately to EN67 in expectation of a coronal stream & glancing blow from a CME that occurred around the time of our departure, which we had discussed with Greg N8CJK while riding North. Mike readily agreed, and with a map secured locally we headed toward Keweenaw County.
A relative newcomer to the area, Mike had not before traveled that far North of Baraga, so Al & I lead the way armed with Al's GPS, and Mike followed behind in his truck. Though the road from Mackinaw to Baraga was slow, the route from Baraga to the Keweenaw area was even slower, and travelling the 80 miles or so took well over 2 hours. By that time it was getting dark. Along the way, we took a chance by deciding to locate an operable portion of EN67 on the Southern portion of the Peninsula. Somewhere along a paintless & potholed County road winding a few yards from the shores of Superior, the GPS revealed that EN57 had given way to EN67. As we excitedly scanned the right-hand side of the road for a pull-off meeting our needs, I called CQ on the mobile. K8EB responded instantly, his voice fully auroral. After an immediate followup by N8CJK, we stopped at a small County parking area overlooking the lake, with just a few trees between the truck and the horizon. With uncontained excitement, we hesitantly turned off the rig and immediately began a frantic effort at setting up out station. After about 20 minutes of continuous effort we had constructed and raised the beam & changed from the FT 847 to the Icom, with which I am more familiar. At Al's insistence (didn't take any, really) I began operating immediately with the truck battery & 100 watts while he & Mike began the arduous task of setting up the amp & squaring away the generator. After a short time we had 15 to 20 more stations in the log, and stopped for a short time to put the amplifier in-line & tune it. As the evening wore on, we managed to work about 50 stations, most on pure aurora. As good as the aurora was however, it was surprising that more stations were not QRV, as we had an excellent path into Southern New England and into the Midwest as far South as EN10. As the aurora subsided, a lull in propagation was followed by the VE8BY/b & the WA1OJB/b on intense auroral Es.
Call as we might, only a few more stations were logged. In the interim, we had nice conversations with N8CJK, K9MU, WA1T & K0AWU, as well as a few others, all of whom assisted us in locating stations to work & clueing us in on propagation patterns previlent in their areas. Bill, K0AWU gave us the most exciting station heads-up when he called to tell us he had just worked KL7NO on auroral Es on 50.125. We immediately QSYed, and after listening for a few minutes heard KL7NO CQing. The QSO was completed with little difficulty, and KL7NO became our longest QSO of the trip at around 4000 km. I tried to convince K3TKJ to work him under his call for a new one, but true to form, AL intends to work his first KL7 from Delaware at his home station, so he declined. Justin, K9MU kindly recorded the QSO as he heard it from EN44, and as promised the wav file was awaiting me when I returned home.
Notably, throughout much of the opening Mike & Al were outside the truck glued to the Northern horizon, watching the fabulous visible aurora. Even though our path to the low Northern horizon was blocked by many trees, the visible display rose high over them. Vertical beams resembling searchlights appeared at random throughout much of the evening, and were followed by undulating horizontal waves starting at the pole & rolling South at tremendous speed, appearing in the atmosphere like ripples on the surface of a still pond. To a Southerner on his first visit that far North, it was unforgettable. Al, who has travelled to many exotic places for NASA before retiring last year, said the display outdid even the best he had seen in Norway the year before. Mike, who had seldom taken the time to watch auroras, intends to spend more time observing them from Baraga in the future.
As the night wore on, most of the stations enjoying the band along with us went QRT. Not too long after one of the many invaluable conversations we had with N8CJK, who told us to pay attention around 3 am local time for renewed conditions, we were on our own. Over the course of the night, few other stations were logged, and though just as Greg N8CJK predicted the aurora returned strong at 3 am, no renewal of activity took place. We bid Greg goodnight again at 3 & spent the remainder of the night attempting to sleep in the cramped cab of the truck. Only 3 other vehicles passed us over the course of the night.
Trooper that he is, Mike arose about 6 am & informed us he had to leave for work. After he left, Al & I called a while longer to no avail. Even with a path clear to the Southern horizon over open water we heard not even a ping from another station, so we decided to tear down the station & recon the area for "the best" spot from which to operate. After a time we reached the farthest-distance paved area of the peninsula, and stopped at a local Michigan ranger station to ask for suggestions & inform them of what we intended to do. After requesting information on "the highest spot in the area with the best view of the horizon[,]" we got a definitive answer- "Oh, you mean Brockway Mountain Rd." When asked about operating from there we were told to go right ahead & that we wouldn't bother anybody, so off we went in search of it. We found it in short order, and in a word, she was right. We immediately recognized the possibilities, and as we drove up the 1300 foot mountain along a razorback ridge, we began selecting operating position possibilities. When we finally reached the top however, all of our other past choices were immediately rejected. There, at 1300 feet, the mountain has a clear peak with a view of lake superior almost 270 degrees in circumference, an under-antennaed 30 foot communications tower on the peak. The road at the peak forms a complete circle around a privately owned store that sits on it's center, and it was near here we chose to set up.
Assembling the station this time took a bit longer than the night before, partially due to less concerted effort on our part and partially due to the frequent interruptions caused by tourists to the area curious as to our purpose. As the day wore on, we discovered that along with grid dxpeditioning we were also holding a de facto symposium on ham radio with an emphasis on VHF propagation & aurora. No fewer than 75 curious onlookers came over to discover what we were up to, and many impromptu lessons on solar weather, aurora & ham radio was given on top of Brockway mountain that morning & afternoon. Although we had no sporadic E or aurora openings that afternoon, we worked some stations on tropo & meteor scatter during the afternoon. At around 5 pm local time, wind on the mountain changed & before long the proprietor of the mountain store approached us, informing us we were "on private property" & that we had to relocate. This of course was a lie- we were on public property with the blessing of the ranger station, but we agreed to move the station about 100 yards to the South in order to avoid further annoying the disingenuous curmudgeon with generator noise. He got no further business from us thru out the rest of our trip, but as it later turned out, the move was probably fortuitous.
By early evening, the aurora returned, albeit weaker than the evening before, and we soon learned that EN67 is a great spot for aurora propagation regardless of major solar events. Every evening we were there we copied the K0KP, N8PUM, VE4ARM and K9MU beacons on aurora, the former two also constantly on tropo as well. The vE8BY beacon from Baffin Island appeared each night on auroral Es, as did the VE4ARM/b & occassionally the VE4VHF beacon as well (on both aurora & Au Es). On thursday night -early friday morning really- we copied all of the beacons mentioned previously, along with VE3UBL, VE2RCH, VA3BCN & K8UK beasons, not to mention the VE6ARC/b on auroral Es and a few others I have been unable to decipher from my notes. Though we get some aurora in Maryland & Delaware, nothing had prepared me for the strength & duration of the aurora & auroral Es openings to be found in EN67. Propagation via these modes from there was terrific, and wonderful to experience. I am convinced that with increased activity at these latitudes on both sides of the pole the presence of some truly remarkable propagation will reveal itself.
After our first restless night in the truck, Al & I decided we needed a base camp closer to the vehicle than Mike's house (over 2 hours away), so before setting up the station on the mountain Friday morning we had rented a hotel room for two nights. As I was particularly burned out from the trip, Al graciously assumed the night-shift at 1:00 am, and Mike & I went down the mountain for a shower & a good night's sleep. Unfortunately for Al, I am a late sleeper, and Mike & I returned Saturday morning later than planned at about 9 am. After informing us he had made no QSOs at all throughout the night, and only a dozen or so in the morning, a well-worn and a bit disappointed Al went south down the mountain for some well-earned sleep. As they pulled away, I began calling in earnest, and began to work a number of stations on a combination of meteor scatter & weak Es, and with some effort over the next few hours I added 2 dozen more stations to the EN67 log. As the morning progressed I quickly discovered that CW was working better than SSB under the conditions existing at the time so I concentrated my efforts in this regard. On a few occassions though, stations called me on SSB, and with some additional effort I was able to complete with them as well. By early afternoon Al returned, and along with Mike we continued to work as many stations as we could. A few times we had some decent long burns, and only then did it become clear that many, many stations were attempting to work us. How we wished for even one 10 minute E opening!
Unfortunately, the opening we hoped for never materialized, but we did continue to pound out infrequent contacts with concerted effort, and sometimes lucky timing. Even the meteors were not very cooperative however, and too many times, hard as I tried I was only able to copy fragments of calls. Other times, a complete call was copied but the station never heard from again. On more than a few occassions I latched onto a call, sending it repeatedly 10-20 times followed by our grid at least the same number of times. With dogged persistence, sometimes, as in the case of WA2SPL, this worked, whilst in others I never did hear the target station again. For whatever reason the best path for meteors seemed to be towards New England & the Mid-Atlantic region, and most of the metoer scatter QSOs were made to this area. I spent many hours calling with the antenna South & West, but seldom even heard a reply ping in those directions.
By late Saturday evening, Al & Mike descended Brockway Mountain & left me to run the nighshift along with the local bears. Very quickly I began to experience first-hand the dissappointment Al described from the previous evening. To make matters worse, a large storm front moved in shortly after dark, and I had to quickly take the amplifier, which we had located for comfort & space in the back of the truck, offline & stow it in its packing crate. I was limited all night to 100 watts output, and as we had determined before the trip it proved entirely insufficient to make all but the luckiest of QSOs on scatter. To add insult to injury, as the rain moved in so did the wind, and I got a first-hand look at how serious the weather on Lake Superior can be. Wind speeds on top of the mountain quickly reached in excess of 50 mph, and even before 11 pm the telescoping masts began twisting despite the screw clamps due to the severe torque caused by the wind on the 20 foot antenna. The antenna platform performed well during the night, though a number of wind gusts were so strong that a few times I assumed the entire array would blow over. Though I continued to call periodically throughout the night, frequent antenna bearing corrections & lightning-heavy fronts ensured my efforts were sporadic at best. By morning, though I had again heard aurora, I had not logged a single station, and the heavy winds only increased in intensity. AS Mike & Al pulled up Sunday morning, I completed a QSO with W5KI in FM29. After calling for another 1/2 hour or so whilst almost continually redirecting the wind-turned antenna and without the slightest indication of a response, a gust of high wind nearly blew over our antenna. With more thunderstorms threatening more lightning & rain, almost without discussion we scrapped the operation and disassembled the station for the long trip home. Had the truck been located at our original, totally-exposed setup location on the highest peak of the mountain, I have no doubt that the antenna & test stand, cinder blocks and all, would have toppled that morning.
Though it ended with bad weather & we had hoped to work many more stations, we considered the trip a success. We learned alot from our mistakes, as well as what we had done right. In our mistake department there are a few things worth mentioning. Firstly, we used cotton cord as our guy lines for the telescpoing mast, as blunder of the first order as cotton stretches enormously when wet. As a person who worked for many years with both pleasure boats & in the commercial fishing industry, I should have realized the error before we ever left home, but in this case only did so as I re-tied the loose lines as they flopped around in the Gale blowing over the mountain early Sunday morning. Also, while locating the amplifier in the truck bed helped keep it very cool throughout the operation, it also served to further-lessen our chances at making QSOs when I had to take it offline before the rain hit Saturday night. To keep it online regardless of weather, a portable shelter for it must be fabricated, or in the alternative it must be located somewhere within the cab of the truck. Finally, our borrowed generator had little more than a flash surpressor on it for a muffler, and with an operating speed of around 3500 rpm it created excessive noise throughout the trip. A generator with a lower operating speed and better muffler system should be secured for subsequent trips. In the future we will also assign 4 hour shifts throughout the night in order to allow each operator to get sufficient rest.
Perhaps our biggest mistake however was not taking along a 2 meter yagi for use with the FT 847, as conditions on 2 meters was likely exceptional from Brockway mountain. Though we worked into Thunder Bay Canada on 2 meter FM simplex from the truck, 156 MHz APS packets were recieved from as far south as Texas over the weekend. Undoubtedly some unforgettable 2 meter tropo could have been worked, and many stations worked on 6 meters wanted to know if we were QRV on 2 meters as well. If in the future we undertake a trip this late in the summer, 2 meters will be a co-equal part of our setup.
Happily though our successes outnumbered our mistakes by far. Al's GPS was extremely helpful, and the amplifier was indispensible, and is certainly the only reason we were able to attract as much attention & work as many stations as we did. Sans the problem with the guylines and our unfortunate run-in with the mountaintop gale, Al's mast assembly worked perfectly. All we may do in the future is to add pins to the mast to eliminate twisting of the mast-clamps in severe weather. Operating from the truck also turned out to be an excellent idea, one we intend to use in the future. All we could really ask for is additional leg room to stretch out in, a comfort issue I intend to address when I purchase a new truck this fall. The use of Mike's truck proved invaluable to eliminate the need to take down the station each evening, so at least 2 vehicles will always be used for future trips. Additionally, our conversations with local hams on the ride to EN67 kept us abreast of the latest conditions and gave us invaluable insight into the peculiarities and patterns of propagation from their area. These chats at length were often even more fun than the actual operation itself- I look forward to more on the next trip.
Though our trip was made later in the season than we intended, it was fun nonetheless. Well over 100 stations were worked, and despite the nightly aurora the majority of them were made on meteor scatter. Many friends were worked and many missed, but we owe a debt of thanks to all- it was great!