The VA3ACR Story
This story was authored by me and transcribed from the
October 1997 issue of "The Canadian Amateur" magazine.
Snow Train Expedition:
more than a rail ride with lots of challenges
Last February, I noticed a packet bulletin from Frank, VE3FOG, announcing that the Algoma ARC was going to run a rail DXpedition on the Algoma Central Railway's Snow Train out of Sault Ste Marie to the Agawa Canyon on March 16. I was recovering from a mild heart attack and it didn't seem like a good idea to go up to Sault Ste Marie from Oshawa by road in the winter. But I was determined to go, and I could visit my mother there, so I checked into flying up to the "Soo" by cashing in a few air miles. I made the travel arrangements and the trip was on.
The weather was appropriate
My son Darren, VA3INB and I flew up to the Soo on March 15 in a semi-blizzard. When the airplane door was opened, snow was blowing in. It was -11 0 C with a 60 kmh wind. We picked up the rental car and headed for the hotel. After a short visit with my mother, we visited Mike, VE3MER ( now VE3MO ) and his wife Linda, VA3LLR. On Sunday, March 16, we proceeded to the train station. It was about -15 degrees but the wind had subsided and the sun was shining. It looked like a perfect day for the trip. We were assigned our seats and Darren and I settled in.
I made my introductions and was welcomed by Frank, VE3FOG. The Snow Train was scheduled to leave at 9 a.m. I noticed that there was a lot of activity around the coaches. I asked Frank what was up and he told me that the Trainmaster had switched around the coaches the night before after they had mounted all the antennas. Needless to say, I pitched in to help.
The antennas were mainly Hustler verticals. The fellows were restricted by how high they could set them, because ther are several tubular-style bridges along the line that had a maximum clearance of 20 feet. I helped to tighten the clamps that fastened the poles to the verticals. It was cold barehands work. As well as the verticals, they mounted a multiband dipole above the coaches. The fellows needed a ladder quickly, so they ran across the street to a fire station and borrowed one to get on the roof of the coach. The dipole was stretched between the far ends of two coaches and the ends were tensioned on bungee cords to take up the slack as the coaches travesed the curves. This was a good idea that unfortunately went awry. After the train started moving, the bungee cords on the antenna stretched too much from the windage and the dipole eventually formed a "J" shape between the poles and worked its way down and snagged on the side of the coach.
Because of the mixup with the coaches, the railway offered to delay the departure until everything was set up. Even with all the changes, they were finished before 9 a.m. and the train left on time.
The radios that were set up in the coach belonged to various club members. There was a 2M set which was being used to work the repeaters and dual-bander for 2M SSB and 70cm FM. Two HF rigs at one end of the coach were set up for 40 and 80M phone. They were powered from the inverter supply on the coach. At the other end of the coach were two HF rigs set up for 40 and 20M CW and powered from the dining car.
Operations on 2M began before the train departed. HF operations were still not quite ready inside the coach because the antenna cables had to be relocated. As soon as the HF rigs were powered up, it became apparent that HF operations were giong to be difficult, at best. There was a considerable amount of machinery noise from the coach. The railway provided an electrician to assist the group but he was unsuccessful in resolving the problem.
Plagued by electrical noise
The power for the coach was supplied from a large bank of 32V batteries that were charged by a DC generator through a power takeoff on the truck of the coach. The 32V batteries fed a 110 VAC inverter with virtually no filtering. The buzz from it was 30 over 9. This put the 80 and 40M phone rigs out of commission. The 40 and 20M CW rigs were a little better off. Because they were supplied from the dining car that had a small diesel generator, noise from it was not a factor. Still, the DC generator on the coach raised havoc with CW operations. We were able to operate in openings when the generator was not charging the batteries. As soon as the generator started to charge the batteries, it was game over. I lost several CW contacts on 20M because of this. It was a shame because we were getting reports via 2M that we were being heard, but because of the noise we couldn't hear them. Everyone took a shift operating CW on both 40 and 20M.
In the meantime, new friendships were made. I made the mistake of not recording the names and call signs of everyone that I met. I did remember to bring a fistful of QSL cards to pass out for the eyeball QSO's. I was the only one to do so, and everyone remarked that they never thought of bringing their cards along to do the same. I brought along a bundle of Durham Region Hamfest flyers to pass out as well.
Besides visiting my mother in the Soo, I had hoped to meet some of the hams that I've chatted with over the years on 80M. I finally meet Joyce, VE3JCE; Fraser, VE3KOF; and Frank, VE3FOG. We all had a great eyeball ragchew. About half way throught the trip, the Algoma ARC presented Walter, VE3CWE, with a large cake to celebrate and congratulate him for having been a ham for 65 years. He received his ticket in 1932.
JA9 a keeper on CW
The trip proceeded and the contacts were not very plentiful. mainly because of the noise. On the return leg of the trip, I took a shift on 20 CW. I made one VE6 contact and then I heard JA9JI calling me. At first, I couldn't believe my ears. I replied "QRZ" and, sure enough it was JA9JI. Fate was with me, because as soon as we signed off, the coach generator kicked in and the noise came back. As matter of interest, we were receiving 5, 5-9, 9 reports and were replying with 4, 3-5, 9 reports.
I mentioned to Frank, VE3FOG, that I came back from Cochrane ( Ontario: ed ) with last year's Polar Bear DXpedition group ( this was the first one occurring in August 1st to 8th 1996: ed ) and he told me that they were the inspiration for the Snow Train DXpedition. Frank said that the Algoma Central Railway and few local businesses were very helpful. Our conversation was overheard by Oliver Lehto of the Sault Daily Star . He was interested in hearing about the Polar Bear DXpedition and asked about a comparison of the two events. I think that the Polar Bear was more businesslike, whereas the Snow Train was a party. After all, it was the day before St. Patrick's Day and the dining car was serving green beer! I'm sure the Snow Train group would have liked to made more contacts, but it didn't interfere with the good time. The train finally returned to the Soo at 7 p.m., about an hour late. We said our goodbyes and Darren and I went for supper with my mother.
On Monday, we boarded our plane and returned home. The trip was short and quick but both Darren and I had an excellent time. It there is another such event anywhere that mixes Amateur Radio with railways, I'll be working hard to climb aboard.