2021 ARRL June VHF

When doing ham radio your preparation, planning, and advance testing all pay off if you put in the time. For this event both me and the Alaska VHF-Up Group were trying a number of new things.

New Toys

My rover station was a complete overhaul from prior contests. To begin with, I had a new truck: a 2021 Chevrolet Silverado Custom. Getting a new truck is fun, but having to rewire, reconfigure, and re-test everything before a contest kind of sucks ass.

As luck (and a metric crap-ton of hard work) would have it, I was able to get the truck set up in time for the contest. A power line was run under the truck and into the bed, a camper shell arrived just in time for the event, and the rotator-antenna stack was adapted to the new shell dimensions the week before the contest.

Rover station set up in the back of a truck
Rover setup in the back of the truck. Power supplies in far corner, logging computer at left, 6 meter rig in center, and VHF/UHF rig at right.

My radio setup was also different from what I had used in previous contests.

I used a Yaesu 891 for everything on 6 M. Over the winter I had used this rig on numerous POTA activations, with great success, and was comfortable with it. The display is readable, power draw is acceptable, the case is compact, and it simply works.

Yaesu 891 in back of the truck
The Yaesu 891 is a great portable radio for POTA or rover contests. With 100 watts on 6 M this was my go to rig for 50 MHz.

The IC-9700 I used for 2 M, 70 cm, and 23 cm was another story . . . . It had arrived in the mail only a few weeks earlier, and before the contest my total time on the air with this rig amounted to something between zilch and zero.

However, I am a firm believer in never letting reality get in the way of a good plan. So . . . I soldered up a power cable, kind of tested the headset adapter, printed off the advanced manual, and decided to learn by doing.

Icom IC-9700 rover
This was my first time out with the Icom IC09700 and I was thoroughly pleased.

And that’s where I fell in love. By analogy, if the Yaesu 891 is a calm, steady loving girl-next-door, then the IC-9700 is a surgically-augmented, no holds barred, $1,000-per-hour escort of VHF-UHF power. And it even has a touchscreen.

If you can’t guess already, the IC-9700 worked great, did everything I asked, and became my new favorite rig for VHF events.

The other new element was incorporating Parks on the Air (POTA) activations into a VHF contest. The club had been experimenting with POTA activations over the previous winter, with good results, and we decided to incorporate some activations into the VHF contest this time.

The first grid would be an activation of Chugach State Park (K-1637).

The Glen Alps parking lot is just a block or two away from my usual VHF contest location in the area, so that made for a natural location to start with.

Chevrolet ham radio rover
Rover station set up in the parking lot at Glen Alps, above Anchorage

The first hour of the contest was predictably busy, and contacts rolled in. I had some trouble figuring out the new Icom radio, but managed to get the basic features going and put the radio in play. USB and CAT control worked well with the N1Mm logging software running in single operator, two radio (SO2R) mode. Once the activity slowed down I packed up and headed downhill to grid two: Point Woronzof.

This gridand location is one I always have mixed feelings about. The site is right at the end of Ted Stevens International Airport, and had great views in all directions. However, is has a ridiculous amount of audio QRM from all the jets taking off.

Ham radio rover station set up at Point Woronzof, Alaska
This site is an odd one: good views in all directions, but jets taking off overhead every few minutes. (Note that in this photo the 6 meter antenna is still rotated 90 degrees from the others for transport.)

For digital operating the background noise wouldn’t be an issue, but operating voice from this location can really be a pain. Just when someone starts calling or response to your CQ a jet will take off under full power and prevent you from replying. The site works, but it takes work to make it work.

Another thing that this site will put to the test is your rotator skills. The location is basically at the center of everything: Anchorage is to the easy, the Mat-Su Valley is due north, and the Kenai Peninsula is southwest. Your rotator definitely gets a workout trying to bring in all the weak stations, and your power system needs to be able to keep up.

KL7BSC in the back of the truck
The back of a truck makes for a surprisingly comfortable operating location.

For the event I brought along a few different power sources: vehicle power, a small battery box, and a large battery box. The two battery boxes are perfect for portable operating. They produce no RFI, are compact, and can be recharged from the vehicle alternator while traveling between grids.

Ham radio field power supplies for a rover
The green ammo cans hold battery packs which recharge from the vehicle while in motion. The blue box is an inverter which powers the black box – a rotator control.

Another aspect of this event that was new to me was operating single-operator two-radio, or SO2R. If you’re not familiar with this technique, the concept is simple.

  • If one radio is good, two is better.
  • Monitoring one band is good; monitoring two is better

I normally wouldn’t go with a SO2R setup up here since the contests are not fast-paced enough to take advantage of a SO2R setup. In my case though, I had to operate that way since the Icom rig doesn’t have 6 M capability.

N1MM logger in a rover setup
This was my first time using two radios in a contest: singl-operator two-radio (SO2R). N1MM made it surprisingly easy.

Anyway, Point Woronzof yielded up a number of good contacts, especially from the Mat-Su Valley. With that grid taken care of it was time to head to the third and final one of the day: Turnagain Arm.

Back when I first started planning rover routes up here this was a location which a number of hams advised me was unreachable. Mountains are in the way, it has line of sight to nowhere, and there are no hams in the area. However knife-edge diffraction around the mountains on either side of Turnagain Arm actually opens up a number of populated areas for contacts.

Operating VHF-UHF ham radio from Turnagain Arm
Transceiver, shade, and coax . . . what more could a ham need?

Nikiski and Kenai can be reached on the south side, and Anchorage stations come in loud and clear on the north side. The better-equipped Mat-Su stations can also be reached from here, although some gain in the antenna system is required on both sides of the the contact.

Operating at the last grid of the day: Turnagain Arm

For the last location the weather was beautiful, the antennas were working, the radios were humming. This grid requires some work since you are using diffraction to make contacts, but it does just fine if you bring a little gain, a little power, and a full set of balls.

Ham radio rover in Turnagain Arm, Alaska
This is the infamous Turnagain Arm spot: a location which I was absolutely assured I would never be able to make contacts from. Think again!

This site also made full use of the antenna stack and its gain. I finally traded in my 6 M loaded vertical for a proper horizontal Yagi antenna. The 6 meter antenna is too wide to go down the road, so before driving between grids it actually has to be loosened, rotated 90 degrees to be in-line with the truck, and then re-tightened for travel. It sounds like a lot of work, but when standing on the tailgate it only takes a moment.

Rover antenna stack
View of the antenna stack set up an in operation. Note that the 2-element 6 meter antenna has to be rotated 90 degrees once I arrive on site. It is too wide to drive down the road with it in operating orientation.

The other big change this time around was the addition of the Comet 23 cm antenna. My previous radios didn’t have this band, so a new antenna was required. Because of time constraints I elected to use a factory-built Comet antenna. It worked out well with an obscene number of elements giving me enough gain to make contacts even from this last location.

After filling up the log with some of the better-equipped Anchorage and Mat-Su stations, I decided to call it a day and head back, enjoying the beautiful scenery along the way. Another good day of contesting in the log . . . and with a successful POTA activation as well.

Updated 2022-05-15