1) Being outside with a nasal infection to shovel the driveway in the middle of a Wind Chill Warning to get a borrowed AWD vehicle the rest of the way up the driveway to the garage and taking 3 days to finish the job
2) The CDC calling pharmaceutical manufacturing companies and telling them to increase production of flu medications, as the flu had reached "near epidemic" levels in the southern US
The difficult winter eased just one day before contest weekend, but it wasn't enough to make it an easy rove. Here's the full story:
In November Tom and I met at the local McDonalds and spent 90 minutes talking about the changing face of VHF contesting. We had a low QSO count in the September VHF Contest on SSB/CW and found out later that it was due to lots of folks moving to the new WSJT-X mode FT8, especially on 6m. This was a phenomenon not limited to the northeastern US, based on comments from others. In the past I did not incorporate computers into the rover vehicle design because of EMI issues with the computers themselves and their chargers, not to mention the laptop that crashed permanently during the January 2002 VHF Contest, taking our log with it. We also talked about the opportunities that are available to anyone in the unlimited rover category, and how we might best take advantage of those in the future. We decided that the most productive thing to do in the short term is perform real-world testing regarding whether or not modern computer equipment generates noise in the current rover receiving equipment (which is probably less susceptible to noise than it was in the old days). Later in the month I formulated our tentative roving schedule which included 8 grids, and 4 backup schedules incase of different combinations of hilltops being unavailable on the second day when we hit some remote areas of central NY. The National Weather Service issued an updated El Nino statement on November 9th that said the northern US would have a colder and wetter winter than average due to La Nina conditions that were expected to persist through spring.
In December I added a CW paddle to the passenger side transceiver since Jon agreed to join us and is proficient at CW. Tom is learning it anyway, so I figured I might as well get that project out of the way. Then Tom and I met on a nearby hilltop for testing two different computers to see if they generated noise. One of them had a solid state hard drive. They both generated noise when moved outside the vehicle and placed near the 2m roof-mounted loop, but moving them back inside the vehicle revealed that the metal shell of the vehicle appears to shield the noise (and the larger physical separation probably doesn't hurt, either). The 6m band already had a higher ambient noise level, so testing was inconclusive there. Another test on a quieter hilltop with no nearby power lines would probably give us the answer. I had to change the roving schedule once already because more research on the original first site showed that it did not have an efficient enough road system leading to any subsequent sites. But that freed up some time for us to hit the better quality sites harder. Tom and I were going to do a dry run of the full setup on the weekend before the contest, but that idea got squashed by freezing rain followed by 8 more inches of snow. Contest weekend showed up quickly and now we had to execute the plan without any testing.
HEADING FOR CENTRAL PA
We steered south and hit the gas. We were leaving early from central NY and with 2 vehicles: Tom was going to be the backup operator / spotting coordinator / sked manager / new equipment tester. Jon and I would be the main operators. The goal for this contest was to lean away from performance a bit, and toward training for Jon and experimentation for Tom, all while having fun.
We took our time setting up the full equipment on a windy hilltop in FN10. After turning the antennas north and resetting the rotor control box to zero degrees, we were ready to go. Spinning the antennas toward Blue Knob Ski Resort in southwestern PA, we heard John KM4KMU calling CQ on 223.500 FM simplex from his portable station on that mountaintop and he was loud and clear. The clock struck two o'clock Eastern time so we called John and made the 139-mile simplex contact with 5x5 signals on our end of the path, then moved to 2m SSB where we worked him again, followed immediately by a West Virginia station 300+ miles away. We were noticing no more interference being generated between 6m and 2m. The new 6m feedline with homebrew choke balun was doing the trick. Unfortunately, there is still inter-station interference between 2m and 222, so a coaxial stub notch filter will be needed for those bands unless we try moving one of the bands to another vehicle. Once again we had no receive on 432 and discovered that the newly repaired preamp died for the second contest in a row. A re-design of the 432 station is now in order. Thankfully it passes RF even after dying, so we turned it off and then turned on the preamp that's built into the amplifier and ran that way for the rest of the contest. That preamp worked alright despite not being protected by a bandpass filter. After 2.5 hours we logged 75 QSOs, and this grid activation would end up producing our highest QSO rate of the contest as it often does. After disassembling the bigger system, we threw the antenna switches over to the loops and headed east.
When we got to our FN20 parking lot, we discovered at least 8" of unplowed snow there, which is too risky for a rear-wheel drive cargo van. To get a spot clear of obstructions, we would have to spend a long time shoveling and would be left with too little time operating at this 2-hour grid activation. So we pulled to the curb and operated 2m FM simplex from Tom's vehicle while operating 6m SSB from the van. When the simplex contacts dried up, we began doing 2m SSB from the van also. Although we didn't have all 4 bands firing, all was not lost. We made 17 contacts and were thankful to be in better shape than usual thanks to installing a 6m loop near the 2m loop that we installed for the September contest, roughly doubling our chances to collect multipliers in a difficult situation like this. It was now 7 PM and time to begin heading back toward home, but we weren't done yet.
On the way back north, Jon would be keeping one eye on the smartphone's grid square display while operating 6m/2m on the loops. When we hit the southeast corner of FN11, I slowed to 60 mph to maximize our time in this 3rd grid attempt. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to generate any QSOs because we were in the grid for such a short time.
We entered our 4th grid, FN21. We stopped at a new location as an experiment, one that was good for taking power naps while maintaining a presence on the air--something much more easily done this time since we had 3 operators. This approach also saves us time from having to detour to our old FN21 hilltop where setting up the full system gets more challenging every time we use it (because we are slowly getting crowded out by junked cars there). We do miss out on the additional multipliers that get generated by having additional bands, but we get home earlier for better sleep. As it turned out, no one took any power naps. I guess there was just too much excitement. This site wasn't what you'd call a high quality rover site, though--there was no particularly good elevation and there were signal blockages from trees and buildings. Nonetheless, the loops saved our bacon again because we made 15 contacts on them plus we had a bathroom and drinking fountain nearby, so we were living large.
RETURNING TO CENTRAL NY
Sunday morning we got back together and headed to the southwest quadrant of FN23 to set up the full system in our 5th grid. For the second year in a row, the roadside pulloff was unplowed, but Tom scouted the nearby summit for us in his AWD vehicle and reported back that the van would probably make it. We got to the top with no problems and shoveled a spot to turn around later. We activated this site for about 3 hours and made almost 70 QSOs. No power line noise or receiver desense this time. We worked a backpack portable station from about 41 miles away on 2m; he was using a 3-el Yagi in his driveway. As is usually the case from this site, the eastern grids started showing up, and we worked into FN32, 42, 43, then began working stations in the other direction off the back of the antennas, so it was a nice time saver not having to rotate the beams. We also worked into FN53 on 2m, a Maine grid that is mostly water.
We tore down at noon and threw the antenna switches back over to the loops. We worked K2LIM on both bands after we crossed into FN13, our 6th grid activation. Thank goodness, because it means we can now count that grid as another multiplier after traveling an hour to get there. We did not work any other stations, but we were only in this grid for less than a half hour.
When we arrived at our FN12 hilltop, our 7th grid activation, the snow hadn't melted beyond what was seen on Friday despite two days of above freezing temperatures. The roadside snowbank was still blocking the access road and the 2" of snow was still on the access road. Shoveling through the snowbank was the easy part. Getting the van to the summit was not so easy. Two inches of snow didn't seem like a big deal, but it was wet snow that compacts quickly with 5,200 lbs of vehicle compressing it. We tried twice and got a little further on the second try. We decided that we would abandon if the third attempt was unsuccessful, and just park on the side of the main road and use the loops to get whatever we could get. All 3 of us spent the next 45 minutes taking turns shoveling the steepest part of the access road and spreading kitty litter for extra grip. We gave it our best shot, the traction control indicator blinking the whole way up, and the van was struggling mightily to maintain the momentum needed, but we just scraped by at about 1 mph and somehow got to the top. Since we still had daylight, we spent the next several minutes re-positioning the van (and we still had wheel slippage despite being on flat terrain). We needed to position it just right so that the antennas could miss the power lines with plenty of room to spare, as well as be able to drive forward when going back down the hill in the dark. We now had only an hour and 45 minutes left to operate out of the original 3 scheduled hours, so we got down to business and produced the second highest QSO rate of the contest despite being located in no-man's land. We collected 54 QSOs in 105 minutes, including an 1,100 mile single-hop contact with VO1KVT GN29 on 6m. Richard N2SPI/R launched an almost diabolical move by criss-crossing the Binghamton, NY grid corner to give us four 2m contacts in 90 minutes, the most strategic move seen in this contest (and he pulled the whole thing off inside our shortened 105-minute time window). He was also our only FN11 contact Sunday.
We were back on schedule, tearing down at 6 PM to make our way east to FN22, our 8th and final grid activation. Our usual hilltop was still inaccessible, but the local club plowed their 1840' hilltop 2m repeater site and allowed us to set up the rover station in their driveway. Amazingly, our first contact went into the log 3 minutes after we claimed a month ago that we might be on the air from here. This turned out to be a great grid activation in many ways. There was a huge turnout of activity from CVARA members (Chenango Valley Amateur Radio Association), a theme that we saw all weekend and it helped our score tremendously (21 additional QSOs). Also, when we turned the beams north, we worked rare FN15, followed by almost-as-rare FN25, both new grids on 2m. We also got told that our 2m signals were 5x9+20dB on Long Island, about 160 miles away, so we must have had a quick burst of tropo to the southeast. Sure enough, we began hearing droplets of water falling off the antennas and hitting the roof of the van without there being any rain, an indication that fog had rolled into the area, and fog is often an indicator of the right conditions for tropo on the upper bands. We worked into Maryland (FM18) for our best 6m DX to the south, and worked K8GP/R on Hogback Mountain, VA for a 294-mile rover-to-rover contact to the south on 2m. We were also delighted to see that we could still work into EN92 to the west on 2m/222 for the second grid activation in a row.
This was our highest January claimed score ever, and 2m was in such terrific shape that we accumulated a record high (for January) 24 grids on that band. Six meters was back to its old, productive self without the negative effects of the low pressure generated by winter storms, and I'm happy to say FT8 did not appear to steal the activity away from SSB/CW this time, either. Little did we know at the time, but Sunday would be the start of a 9-day stretch of no sunspots--not a big surprise as we continue to approach solar minimum. The activity level in general for this contest was above average. Not a bad result for all the experimentation we did--new op, new site, new technique (Internet assistance).
Band QSOs QSO pts. Mults. ---------------------------------------------- 50 111 111 15 144 128 128 24 222 40 80 15 432 32 64 11 ---------------------------------------------- TOTALS 311 383 65 +7 grids activated -- 72 --- Claimed score = 27,576 ---
|N2SLN/R: A fringe rover in more ways than one.|