QRP in the far north is tough . . . but not impossible.
There is a mostly-unspoken ethic in the SOTA community regarding activators and activations: as an activator you should plan and execute summit bids to make the peak accessible to as many chasers as possible.
There is nothing wrong with doing a quick-and-dirty activation on the 2 meter band if that is all you have time for. But if “wham, bam, and thank you mountain” is the only style you use then, as they say, your kung fu is not strong.
I had been able to activate a few Alaska summits using local VHF contacts only. That was good for me, since I got the points and the bragging rights, but it was not doing much for the larger SOTA community. That pissed me off, so I did what I always do when I get pissed off: I refused to take no for an answer and decided to make the impossible possible. I was going to figure out how to do QRP portable from Alaska to the outside.
The method I chose was to try doing an activation using FT8, part of the WSJT digital modes suite. This mode is exceptional for weak signal operations, but you need a lot of gear to use it: computer, interface, and software. It took some time to do testing and make that kind of setup portable, but eventually I got everything working.
(An often-overlooked tool for portable radio operations is your back porch: never be too proud to set up on the patio and see how things work close to home.)
Bodenburg Butte is a small peak just north of the Knik River that stands off by itself. The trail is pretty easy to navigate. I should note though that there are two different trails to the top of this peak. For this activation I took the route that starts on the north side of the peak.
The start of the trail is flat for a bit, and then you start to gain a little altitude. April in Alaska is usually still quite snowy, and this time was no exception. The weather was mild (for Alaska), but with all the snow on the ground the walk was a little treacherous. Some grippers on my snow boots were all that was needed.
This is very much a front-country trail and is heavily used by locals. The north side of the peak is pretty steep once you get to the base of the hill. To keep erosion down there are stairs built on the steepest section.
After the stairs end you are pretty close to the top, which is much more rounded than steep. The whole peak is basically a giant boulder sticking out of the valley floor, and the top was rounded off during the last ice age. At this point I was hopeful about the test activation.
The views from the top were beautiful. I made sure to get an early start on the hike, and so when I summited I was the only person there. The highest point of the peak has benches for people to sit and is generally more trafficked. I elected to set up on a mostly flat area of snow just to the west of the peak.
For this activation I was testing a lot of new (for me anyway) SOTA gear. To keep the number of new variables down I elected to stick with a known antenna. My linked dipole is a homemade design that is cut for 40 meters and 20 meters. If you want to build a similar one you can use the calculator on this website.
I mounted the antenna on a fiberglass mast: an MFJ 1913 fiberglass mast. One advantage of snowy activations is that it makes it easy to set up the mast – simply plunge the base into the snow and you are good to go!
My gear was as follows:
- Mast: collapsible MFJ 1913
- Antenna: Homemade linked dipole (40-20-10M)
- Computer: Dell laptop running windows 10
- Interface: Mini Pro SC
- Radio: Yaesu 817 ND, using internal batteries
Whenever you bring new gear into the field for the first time it is good to have a backup plan. To be sure that the trip up the peak would not be wasted I timed the hike to coincide with the Alaska VHF-Up net. This net takes place on simplex and I often use it as “insurance” to make sure I get at least the required 4 contacts. After checking in on the net and getting some simplex contacts in the log it was time to start testing the digital setup.
I had some trouble initially with making sure that everything was actually working. For some reason it seemed that I was not getting power out during the FT8 transmit cycle. (the power meter on the radio was not showing output.) I had adjusted the audio levels while testing at home, so I could not figure out why power was not being delivered. In any case, after some adjustment of audio levels I was back in business.
After a while contacts started coming in. One thing that became painfully clear about FT8 is just how slow it is. FT8 is considered “fast” in relation to some of the other WSJT modes, but it is still very slow in practice. Also worth noting is that this is a 100% duty cycle mode, so even at QRP power levels you are going to spend a lot of watts for each contact.
I was prepared to stay at the peak for a while, so I was fine. But the slow speed of this mode is something to keep in mind when planning your own activation. You need to be dressed for an extended stay and have some snacks and water on hand.
By the end of the activation I had burned through both of my Yaesu batteries , but it worked! Even with the low power radio I made a number of contacts to the lower 48, including a few SOTA-specific chasers. Some lessons learned from my first FT8 activation:
- It works! Just be sure to test your gear at home before taking it into the field.
- Bring batteries . . . lots of batteries.
- Have a backup plan. Even though I made more contacts over HF than on VHF, it was still a big relief to have the activation secured before testing the digital setup.
- Digital modes can be used successfully for Summits on the Air. You have to pay attention to the weight and bulk of the gear, but it can be done.
- Change as few things as possible with each trip out. On this activation my mast, radio, and antenna were known quantities. When troubleshooting at the peak I could exclude all of them.
Never be afraid to try new things, and don’t let others tell you that something cannot be done. You would be surprised at what you can accomplish when you really apply yourself to the problem.