Reflections of the 1999 June ARRL VHF QSO PARTY
by Matt Burt KFUK
I live in the Mississippi river valley in southeastern Minnesota. I hardly ever use my all-mode VHF gear at home as the elevation at my location in EN44 is at 749 feet above sea level. To make things worse there are bluffs on three sides of our home that rise up nearly 300 feet above the valley. As bad as this sounds, I actually feel fortunate that the blufflands are very close-by with the grid border between ENs 44 and 43 just a couple of miles from my home. I have participated in many contests over the last ten years, but these have been limited to the HF bands. In 1997 I purchased my first IC-706mkII. I was always interested in the weak signal portions of the six meter and two meter bands, but could not imagine how I could use my transceiver from my terrible location at home. It was always kind of disappointing to miss out on the interesting modes of propagation that occur in the VHF/UHF/SHF bands too.
I accidentally discovered the rover class during a
review of the contest rules for an upcoming VHF contest in 1998.
It took a couple of months to get my first rover effort under
way, but by September of 1998 I was hooked. Roving provides me
with an outlet for the desire to get on the high bands without
selling the house. I also discovered what I call the rover DX
grid concept. The thrill of arriving to a new grid handing out
new multipliers to the hungry fixed stations can
really be contagious! In the period between September 1998 and
January 1999 I spent all my free time learning about VHF/UHF
equipment and dreaming about a time where I could really have an
impact in the rover class. To have a real impact I would have to
get as many bands as possible above 50MHz up and running. In
succession I added 432MHz, 222Mhz and 1296. At the very last
moment before the January 1999 VHF Sweepstakes I was able to get
the five bands going. I was hoping for a big effort in January,
but had a few problems predicting the weather conditions and my
equipment logistics in the Midwestern winter. The January 1999
VHF Sweepstakes effort was far from what I expected, but turned
out to be a valuable lesson on what not to do for a successful
contest effort! I was looking forward to another chance to prove
that my rover station could perform. By February of 1999 I was
focused on participating in the 1999 June ARRL VHF QSO Party as a
way to prove my stations capability.
Preparation for the ARRL June VHF QSO party began just a few months before June 99. The drill for the June contest for me was the Spring VHF Sprints in April and May of 99. Everything I learned about roving and VHF+UHF weak signal work during the sprints would be applied in the June contest. It was a great time going out in the spring in Minnesota getting to know many of the folks out there who I would meet in the future. The June contest would be a bit different than the sprints I would have a total of five bands to haul around!
The whole concept of roving may seem a bit esoteric to some, (at least thats the way I describe it it sounds better than crazy!) for it is necessary to bring along the required antennas/feedlines, etc. for the bands you wish to operate. On the surface this may seem simple, except add in the desire for a competitive edge. The desire to be competitive can turn normal rational people into someone perceived a bit unusual. Imagine a full size yagi for 2 meters (13B2) on the roof of a car. Now imagine a four element beam for 6 meters on the roof. Add in a vertical beam for 2 meters, a yagi for 432 (14 foot boom), a small yagi for 222, and a 45 element loop yagi for 1296 and you have a rover station! The thought of all the hardware required to build a competitive rover station even boggled my mind!
For the June contest I decided that although I would like to have a big signal on as many bands as possible; reality dictated I had to compromise. The only compromise ended up being the 13B2. I decided that 4 elements would be enough for 144, and purchased a 144WB boomer. For six meters though I stayed with the four elements, and engineered a way to haul the thing safely and deploy quickly in the field. (The complicated mechanism required the transport and deploy the antenna is somewhat proprietary, and may be divulged in future paper some day.)
Planning for the contest consumed my free time for weeks. I decided to activate at least 12 grids for the event. The trip would be long (at least 600 miles) and require an overnight stay. I carefully put together a list of required supplies: batteries, tools, jumpers, fuses, food, water, maps, tape, logging materials, and clothes including two jackets and two pairs of shoes. Many of the grids I would activate were new to me, and there was no way to travel them prior to the contest. I learned as much as possible talking to people familiar with the areas and studied maps. The pace required to activate the all the grids and keep moving did not allow for any slip -ups such as getting lost or taking extra breaks. It really seemed like I was preparing for a marathon race!
I decided that the most efficient way to do the 12 grids was
to start out at the far west point and work south into the next
grid corners. The start point for the June contest was EN24 in
Minnesota. It would be extremely important to depart no later
than 10:30AM Saturday morning in order to keep the schedule. I
would work that grid and quickly cross to EN23. From there I
would work south into Iowa watching the GPS until I had crossed
into the next grid EN22. I tried to add a realistic amount of
travel time to the schedule, but since I hadnt actually
driven the route - it would be a gamble. Overnight was to be in
the center of the loop (or close to it) which turned
out to be Ames, IA. On Sunday I would take off early activating
EN31, heading east to EN41 were I would turn and head north back
to Minnesota. It would clearly take the entire contest for me to
get in all 12 grids.
The equipment for my rover station was centered around my IC-706mkII transceiver. I would use the transceiver for 50.1 and 144MHz as well as the IF for the 222 and 1296 transverters from Down East. For 432 I would use a separate rig; a Kenwood TM455A. I would use bricks for all bands: 180W for 50.1, 170 W for 144, 120W for 222 100W for 432, and 35W for 1296. All bricks with the exception of 1296 had pre-amps. Three types of cables were required: Battery voltage for power, feedlines, and signal cabling needed for ALC, HF send, VHF send, PTT, keyer input, and amplifier key lines. The transverters were connected with an AOS interface for 144 and the TIB for 28MHz IF. The electrical system in my Jeep Cherokee was modified the handle the charging system requirements for an auxiliary battery and provide cabling and fusing of the lines for the equipment. I installed a battery isolator to protect the vehicle starting battery (battery no. 1) from accidental discharge. Coax switches were used to switch the feedlines between 6M and 28MHz IF for 222, and 2M to 144 IF for 1296.
Seven antennas were required for the concept I had in mind for the June contest. The majority of the feedlines were Times LMR400 flex. I ran down the rear window on the passenger side of the vehicle about 1½ inches, and put in some foam pipe insulation in the crack. I routed the feedlines down the passenger side of the vehicle through the open window and closed the crack up. The idea seemed to work great keeping out the rain and bugs. My nested mast system and rotator configuration are again somewhat proprietary, but a can say that you can construct all kind of useful things with electrical conduit (EMT) and 5/16 PTO lock pins from the farm store! The most interesting thing about my mast system was the ability to rotate the top two antennas (144 and 222) while in motion! This could safely be done while the other antennas were securely fastened down for transport. The only downside to the concept was that it was difficult to drive safely while attempting to operate the rotator and see where the yagi is going. I most often opted for safety and avoided working too many stations while in motion. My June effort was solo a second operator would have helped!
The complexity of the station required a thorough test prior
to the contest. This was done in my driveway (thankfully, mostly
at night!) on the Friday before the contest. The whole antenna
system had to be tested and raised with the 6M yagi on top. My
neighbors are used to the sight, but the passers-by have stopped
in awe; and this contest was no exception. By this stage of the
preparation my family (avoiding embarrassment) has found
something else to do that requires them to be away from the house.
Its hard to guess what common folks may think a fully
equipped rover station is for. Typical reactions from people I
have encountered have included storm tracking, television?, and
several times references to extra-terrestrials. The antenna
system for the June contest was impressive. The overall height of
the array was 22 feet. The longest boom was 14 feet of which 6
feet extended beyond the rear of the vehicle. For safety I had
designed a light to hang on the rear of the assembly, but have to
confess that I havent used it every time.
DOWN TO THE WIRE - TESTING OUT THE STATION
All transceivers, transverters and amplifiers were systematically tested before departing for the contest. SWR, power output, transverter/amplifier keying and CW keyers were checked out. Everything seemed fine but a brief rain Saturday morning and a few other minor issues (sleep?) caused the testing to run farther into the morning than I had planned. Never the less I departed Saturday at 11:00AM (a full half-hour late!), with all parts of the station in working order. Even though I was pretty stressed out by the late start, I was pleasantly surprised how well everything was working.
I threw the final supplies in the car and affixed my somewhat official looking magnetic signs that read Amateur Radio on the vehicle doors and departed. (The signs really seem to act as an insurance policy for me as I have never been questioned by Law Enforcement or other officials during thousands of miles roving in the upper-Midwest). After a brief stop along the highway to re-secure the array I was heading west for the grid corner EN33/23/24/34 south of Mankato, MN. My plan was to be on the air right at the contest start which at this time was looking like a long-shot . Fortunately, the trip to my first point of operation took a bit less time than expected. As the UTC clock hit 18:00Z I could hear the band (144Mhz) come alive with signals. I was still in EN33, frantically driving to EN24. I was keenly aware that one of the best ways to draw even more attention to the rover station is to exceed the speed limit while driving. The additional wind load of the antenna array plus a bit of common sense helped keep my speed down to that of near-legal.
EN24/23 - THE START
I finally arrived to EN24 at 18:20Z. When I jumped out of the car I could tell that the temperature had risen into the low 80s already. The skies were clear and the dew point was high. I quickly raised the array up and pointed north east. I kept the car running with the A/C on! I made a few contacts, but seemed to miss a few of the regulars. I quickly put eighteen qsos in the log and moved down the road to EN23. The pace was a bit faster in EN23. I stayed on the air for only 35 minutes and decided to keep with the schedule and head for EN22, which was about one-and-a-half hours away.
ALGONA, IA - EN22
Every time I look at the map and think of a possible good rove of my surrounding area the town of Algona, Iowa is in the middle some where. The corners ENs 22,23,32,33 reside just outside of the town a few miles, and the terrain is fairly flat with just a few rolling hills. Near the grid corners are several dirt roads, which are highly desirable to someone looking for a place to park with few interruptions! My interest was to activate only EN22 and 32 here, and keep moving for my far grid EN21. I stopped for some fuel in Algona, and headed southeast of town toward the corners. I drove about a mile past the grid border of EN22, pointed my nose to the north and raised up the array. The response from stations as I called CQ contest from echo - november twenty-two was almost more than I could handle! My stay near Algona was brief, but quite fruitful. The equipment was working well, and fixed station support was great! In all I logged some 54 contacts in ENs 22 and 32.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN -
The drive to EN21 started out fine. I spent about a half hour meandering across the countryside before I got back to HWY 169 south. As I drove I was bothered by a lingering fear of 6 meters opening up while I was in transit. I was afraid that I may miss the only possible opening on six while in motion; with my beam laying along side the vehicle just two feet off the ground vertically polarized! After a while my fears were realized - I started hearing W - fives calling! The band seemed quite active, so I decided to try to snag a few rare multipliers while I could. I searched for a location where I could park and work some of these stations I was hearing. It turned out to be a waste of time. The band was really not in that great of shape after all. My unscheduled operation from EN22 only netted 3 contacts, the only rare new multiplier was EM13 in Texas. It was now getting dark and EN21 was still far to my south. It would be hours before my signal would rise out of the noise again.
EN21 - ARE YOU THERE YET?
I think my lowest and my highest points of the June contest were found in EN21. My poor timing (and the stop in EN22 to work 6 meters) caused me to arrive very late to EN21. I was so late, and it was so dark for so long that I couldnt imagine working anyone from here, but I was wrong! Just a few hundred yards past the grid border I pulled over got the array up, and there was Perry KKD! For the next 20 minutes I worked all the stations I could to the south and west, and then at 0351Z WUC jumped in. I stayed in EN21 until just after 0400Z. I guess the rover DX grid concept was alive and well even at this hour! Only 23 contacts here, but it was great. My next grid was the bed at the Super 8 in Ames! The motel was still over 30 miles away to the east. By the time I parked and walked in to the front desk to check in it was 12:15AM.
EN31 - DAY TWO
I awoke on Sunday morning just a few hours after turning in. The night manager still there from when I checked in was quite surprised to see me just after 5:00AM to checking out! My schedule allowed some extra time for breakfast, which I used for scouting the next spot in EN31. I was still tired from the long day before, but pressed on. I drove to an area south of Nevada (the city make sure you pronounce the first a correctly ) that looked promising. I parked along the road with the nose of the vehicle pointed west. The sun was just over the low trees behind me and the long grass was covered with dew. A passer-by stopped for a moment only to say: Good Morning. I replied the same and explained I would only be here for a short while. The man told me : You can stay here all day if you like (Two things occurred to me at this time: 1) the people in Iowa are very friendly and trusting. And: 2) This man did not own the land I was parked on! After getting on the air I quickly met up with the gang from last night. Everything seemed to be working well. I noticed six meters was trying, almost struggling to open up. I heard brief spikes of Kilo - two, or Fox Novem -ber, and other such clues, but the band never quite got there. I kept my focus on the locals in the Midwest and soon hooked up with Perry KKD again. Perry is a fine operator, and it is always a pleasure to work him during a contest. The second day of the contest seemed to be starting out great until I tried to hook up with Perry on 1296. When I flipped the switch for the transverter the usual jump up in white noise was gone! I seemed to have a problem with the preamp in the transverter. This was the start of my problems on 1296, which stayed with me for months! At the time I didnt realize it but my AOS-144 (transverter interface )was later found to be blown. I decided to continue on only making one brief stop in EN32 to hook up with Perry again, as I missed him the night before in that grid.
EN41/42: SIX - METERS!
The grid line between EN41 and 42 lies near the town of Newhall, IA just north of HWY 30. Finding a place to park in EN41 was quite easy. I located a high spot near a farm and was back on the air. It looked like six meters may come alive as I picked up new grids in Colorado and Texas from EN41. I quickly moved to EN42 as the band really opened up. I wasnt comfortable doing a great deal of operating in downtown Newhall on six meters, so I drove a ways outside of town and got on the air. The gulf coast of Texas was booming in and I even managed to work Montana on six for some badly needed multipliers. Many of the locals must have been on six too, as I didnt hear quite as many of them on 144MHz as before. As a rover I really hate even having the six meter band in the contest because of the size of the antenna required, but today the band really added some excitement! The new grids on six meters more than made up for the quiet found on the other bands. I had another visitor stop by briefly wondering what in the world I was doing here in Iowa on a Sunday morning parked on a dirt road. I tried to explain the contest to the man, but by the time I mentioned grid squares and the relationship to the latitude coordinates I believe his interest in amateur radio was gone. I departed for EN43 thinking that the next time I run into a visitor I might try making something up a bit more zesty.
EN43 - STILL IN IOWA?
I decided to activate EN43 in Iowa instead of my usual spot in Minnesota. This was a bit hard for me as I can drive about 3 miles from home and be in a great spot in EN43, but the contest must go on! Having done fairly well in the last couple of grids I was hoping to duplicate the effort in EN43. The biggest problem I had was finding a location that would produce reliable contacts without really knowing the area that well. As I was driving somewhere north of West Union, IA on HWY 150 I kept noticing a higher elevation area to my north east. My schedule demanded that I be operating soon - and just then appeared Kitty Road. I couldnt imagine operating here; not only was the road was narrow, but the south side had a 7,200 volt line waiting to greet me! I spite of its daunting name, the site on Kitty Road looked like it had potential. By some coincidence I turned on my FM broadcast radio just prior to climbing the crest of the hill going to Kitty Road, and I realized that the VHF coverage from this site would be great! One of my favorite low powered FM stations near the bottom of the broadcast band located in western Wisconsin was booming in! I eased the vehicle along the safe side of the road, (opposite the power lines) and raised up the array. Kilo Fox-trot Zero - .. Rover! (you know the rest) I was up and running! I was logging contacts with stations to north and west of me on all five bands until my 222 rig became silent! The culprit turned out to be a fuse - I was sure glad to find an ample assortment of ATC 20A fuses in the tool kit! (The transverter slid during the ride and simply grounded the ATC fuseholder . My haste on Friday night caused the problem but I was on the air again in less than a minute.) Before long I ran into NWE/R and worked them on all five bands! ( It is especially nice for us rovers to work other rovers!). After cleaning up some 31 contacts in just over one hour I left Kitty Road and headed north again.
EN33 - 9 GRIDS DOWN AND THREE TO GO!
I normally operate from EN33 in Minnesota as well but couldnt wait this time. I knew that the terrain in northern Iowa was quite good so I found a spot just south of Harmony, MN that looked acceptable. By this time of the contest I was keeping good pace with my original schedule. It didnt take any time to locate a good spot to park off the unpaved county road. I eased in to an abandon tractor path and started making contacts. My timing was good as there were quite a few stations looking for someone new. I was thrilled to once again find NWE/R for another five band sweep! The few folks that drove by while I operated from EN33 only greeted me with smiles. It sure seemed to me that this was by far the friendliest rove I have been on yet! I operated for 58 minutes and headed north for EN34.
EN34 (almost) HOME AT LAST!
The location of grid corners of EN33/34/43/44 are known to many here in the upper Midwest. I found them by searching the atlas of Minnesota and noticed that the intersection of these grids is on a county road just
west of Utica, MN. This unique place is only 30 minutes drive from my home in the valley. I scouted the location earlier in the year, and realized how interesting it would be to operate from an area where you can change grids quickly. The first time I took my GPS unit here, I noticed my maidenhead display change five times while driving on the same road! The elevation of this area is quite good too, which is an attractive attribute as well.
I arrived to EN34 at 0024Z very close to my scheduled time. After my presence was known to others I was quite busy putting contacts into the log a brisk pace. I paused for a moment and took advantage of the glorious sunset for a last photo-op from EN34. The weather for my entire trip so far was perfect! After that I decided that there was just enough time to roll a few hundred feet into EN33 and pick up some stations I missed earlier from Iowa. I spent the remainder of the contest near the grid corners working each grid in succession, driving only two miles total. By this time in the contest the crowd was pretty much routine - having worked some of the stations dozens of times. I was still having trouble hearing well on 1296, as the only stations I could work were fairly close in. The remainder of my equipment was most certainly de-bugged by now and was performing fantastic. The engine in my Cherokee which had been running or idled now for some 26 and-a-half hours out of the last 32 just kept chugging along.
SPRINT TO THE FINISH!
I had worked many contests in the past before I realized that there are people out there quite happy to work up to the very last minute of the event! The VHF contest is a prime example of this. After cleaning up with most of the stations I could hear in EN44 I had just enough time to pull the array down and drive to EN43 before the clock hit 0300Z. I wasnt able to hook up with KBVUK yesterday from IA, but there he was just minutes before the end of the contest! I knew it would be tough but I managed to work Matt on four bands even with the antennas lowered for transport! For the final contact of the long weekend I was in the middle of a narrow road in the dark with the car in reverse steering the direction of the 1296 loop his way! Whew! It was a finish that I never would have imagined . 12 grids, 700 miles and memories of a lifetime. No records were broken by my effort, but my personal goal of survival was met, and I felt like I had just completed a marathon race. Operating as a rover in the contest gave me the thrill of starting the contest a dozen times!