Monday, January 24, 2022

More Lessons from 2nd Parks on the Air Activation

One of the great things about amateur radio is the constant learning and skill improvement that is an inherent aspect of this hobby. Setting up a shack in a home is one thing but operating in the field is quite another adventure and requires new skills and sometimes even a different frame of mind, a liberal sprinkle of patience, and a high tolerance for cold weather (if you're out this time of year in the more northern latitudes.)

On January 22 I activated my second park for the Parks on the Air (POTA) program. The temperature outside was a cool 37F/2.7C, but at least the sun was out making it feel like a rather balmy 37F day. And, with no rain in the forecast and sunshine what more reason do I need to go outside and play? So, I packed my POTA kit and drove the 13 miles to Saltwater State Park in Des Moines, Washington. This was my first time to this park in the 24 years I lived in Washington. That is pretty sad now that I think about it because it is really a beautiful little park. 

When I arrived around 12:30 pm there really weren't that many people, and most were walking on the tidal flats or with their kids playing at the playground in a different section of the park.  I grabbed a parking spot right next to the beach and unloaded my kit onto a picnic table on the small grassy field overlooking the log strewn beach. I chose a spot close to the edge of the grassy area next to some logs because I thought it would be out of the way despite being front and center.

Once again, I setup my Buddipole dipole antenna for 20 meters on the edge of the grassy area. Two of the guy lines were secured along roughly the same parallel as the mast, and away from foot traffic.  The 3rd guy line I ran back to the picnic table and secured it so the guy line would mostly be above head height just in case someone felt compelled to walk across the 10 feet of grass between me and the antenna.

In my first POTA activation I operated QRP, but this time I setup my Elecraft KX3 with the KXPA100 amplifier. I wanted to evaluate how the 2 Dakota Lithium batteries (20Ah total) would hold up while running the amp at nominal 50W in FT-8 mode. Unfortunately, I only operated for 3 hours before my I couldn't feel my fingers and called it a day. Three hours was really not enough time to adequately evaluate QRV duration while running the amp with 2 10Ah batteries in parallel. But during the 3 hours of operation I made 66 QSOs, including 3 Japanese stations, 3 Canadian stations, and 1 Mexican station. 

POTA QSOs from K-3236

By 3 pm there were a lot more people enjoying the park. A few came over to chat usually starting the conversation by asking, "What are you measuring?" I am thinking that CW is probably a little easier to explain than FT-8 mode; especially since there is zero sound coming from my rig or Surface Go 2 and I'm operating in silence. Most would walk around the antenna and the picnic table, but a few decided to walk directly under the single guy line between the antenna mast and the picnic table most carefully stepping over the antenna cable. Only one 'Karen' approached the antenna mast, looked up at it for a few seconds, then looked at me and started walking underneath the guy and say, "why would the let someone put that up there?" She made sure I heard her complaint because she turned around and looked at me. I smiled and waved. (But secretly I thought to myself they allow it because they think most people are smart enough to walk around it.)

Saltwater State Park is a great place to operate and activate a park despite the almost constant aircraft traffic landing and taking off from SeaTac airport. 

I am still learning about portable and POTA activations, so here are some additional lesson's learned:

  • If you're throwing wires into trees, make sure you get permission from the park authorities first!
  • If you're putting up a mast of any sort it might be a good idea to attach 1' long 1" wide hi-vis yellow, green, or orange ribbons at the 4-5 foot height above ground level on all guy lines. This is low enough for most children to see, and high enough for most adults to notice; especially if there is the slightest breeze. (HOWEVER, it doesn't matter the number or color of ribbons you use, there will almost always be at least 1 'Karen' who will go out of her/his way just so she/he can complain.)
  • Also, it might be a good idea to get some small hi-viz 6" cones to place at the end of each guy, and also every 3-5 feet on the ground along your coax between the rig and the antenna if you plan to work anywhere near other people. (I ordered 6 of these.)
  • I saw this on idea from WD9EWK posted on Twitter, and I made up a few signs for myself to setup beside my kit.
  • In your POTA kit don't forget to include a pocketknife or Leatherman tool.
  • Also include a small first aid kit (for those times you cut yourself with your pocketknife or Leatherman tool).

Friday, January 21, 2022

My First Parks On The Air Activation


Unless you've been sleeping or haven't turned on your radio for the past 2-3 years you have probably heard about Parks On The Air (POTA). But, if POTA is new to you a simple web search or a CLICK HERE will give you details about the current program. But first, let's delve into a little POTA history lesson.

I suspect many of us recall the ARRL sponsored a year long Parks On The Air event in 2016. But, do you know that the concept of Parks on the Air was around well before that? In fact, the first mention of a parks on the air event appears to have occurred in 2008.

POTA 2010
POTA 2010

A Brief History Lesson

Way back in 2008 the Portage County Amateur Radio Service club in Ohio started
the very first State Parks on the Air contest. The Ohio State Parks On The Air (OSPOTA) contest has been held annually since the time of its inception. Indianna Parks on the Air started on January 1st, 2010, and since then other states such as Florida, Texas, Wisconsin, and Kentucky each have annual Parks on the Air events.

The first attempt at an international Parks On The Air (POTA) program was started on September 15, 2010 by VE3FAL, N4NSS, and W1PNS. The only thing that remains of that program is the webpage at 

The ARRL sponsored the National Parks on the Air event in 2016 that was rather popular. In April of 2017, W3AAX was awarded a registered trademark for Parks on the Air, and he and a team of volunteers built a web portal, formed a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, and slowly grew today's Parks on the Air program. The past 2 years 2020 and 2021 have seen a huge explosion in the program's popularity and overall success. Some of the interest may be attributable to the pandemic, but I suspect that much of the success is due to the ease of engagement as a hunter or activator and the sheer enjoyment of getting outside the house to activate a park, or hunting parks for free awards, a rare grid, or just to make add another QSO in the log. 

My first recorded QSO with a POTA activator was in December of 2016. I honestly don't recall specifically hunting parks at that time, but there it is. I didn't log any QSO with parks from 2017 through 2019, and then in early 2020 I started getting interested and became a "casual hunter" of POTA. I was in Fiji for most of 2021 and coming back to Seattle in November 2021 and getting on the radio I was amazed at the level of activity and growth of Parks on the Air. Not only was I actively hunting parks almost daily, I started planning my very first activation.

My First POTA Activation

I purchased an Elecraft KX3 with all the bells and whistles, along with a PX3 panadapter, and KXPA100 amplifier for my planned DXpeditions in the Pacific once the islands reopened after this pandemic. So, I already had my "Shack in a Box" ready to go. But I realized I didn't need my entire "shack in a box" kit for POTA activations. I really didn't need the panadapter in the field as I would not be the hunter, I would be the gatherer! Also, I would not be using a generator to activate parks, so I would need some battery power. I knew I wanted LiFePo4 batteries because they maintain a steady voltage as compared to SLA or AGM batteries. Dakota Lithium is located in Seattle, so I paid them a visit and acquired 2 LifePo4 lithium batteries. Now it was time to assemble my POTA kit. 


What's In My POTA Kit?

  • Elecraft KX3 transceiver w/Key
  • Elecraft KXPA100 Amplifier
  • AX1 whip antenna with 40 meter coil and 2 ground radials
  • SoundBlaster Play 3 external soundcard
  • MFJ-223 Antenna Analyzer
  • 2 Dakota Lithium LiPo4 lithium batteries
  • Microsoft Surface Go 2 tablet
  • Apache 4800 Weatherproof Case
  • A Buddipole antenna kit with 18' mast
  • A foldable chair
  • A small portable table
  • A thermos with a warm beverage
  • A snack (or 2 or 3)

I purchased an Apache 4800 Weatherproof Protective case from Harbor Freight Tools in Seattle. It holds everything except for the Buddipole kit (which should be obvious). While this box isn't ideal for hiking (I'm in the process of researching backpacks for hiking into parks), it is great for "easy" parks that are accessible by car.

I purchased a new Surface Go 2 because it is just easier to find amateur radio software that runs on Windows platforms, and WSJT-X doesn't run on an iPad. The 'loaded' Surface Go 2 was on sale for the same cost as a stripped down Go 3, and the reviews comparing the Go2 to the Go 3 seem to favor the Go 2. On the Surface Go 2 I run N3FJP's Amateur Contact Log and WSJT-X software. Plus, I can install additional N3FJP software contest logs should I ever decide to operate a contest from the field. 

The Dakota Lithium LiFePo4 batteries are really a no brainer. The LifePo4 batteries hold a steady voltage for a longer period of time during the discharge cycle which is important if you're planning on operating above QRP for any length of time. Also, I needed at least 20 Ah in order to run the KXPA100 amplifier. These batteries can virtually be completely drained without harm, and recharged more times than a SLA or AGM battery. And, with an 11-year warranty you simply can't go wrong! 

I have a Signalink USB in my "shack in a box" kit and initially planned on using that. But then I thought maybe I should downsize the external soundcard. So, I ordered a SoundBlaster Play 3 from Amazon, hooked it up, and it works seamlessly with the KX3, the Surface Go 2, and the WSJT-X software. Seriously, it was almost too easy. 

I purchased the Buddipole kit a few years ago when I was travelling frequently to Vietnam and operating as XV9WJR there. I like this kit a lot and can set it up as a dipole or vertical antenna. It's certainly not as light or as simple as an end fed antenna hung from a tree, but it's a pretty impressive antenna for its size. Also, it is very easy to assemble and take down. The KX3 and the KXPA100 both have antenna tuning units in them that are damn near capable of tuning a wooden stick. But the MFJ-223 antenna analyzer allows me to adjust the coils and/or antenna whip lengths to accurately match the frequency I want to work and rely less on the ATUs for matching. 

Prepping for the POTA Activation

Prior to heading out to a park I wanted to make sure my first activation would be successful. So, I charged everything and packed my POTA kit. The next morning (well, the next morning it wasn't raining here in Seattle) I took my POTA Kit to the backyard. The Buddipole was up in less than 10 minutes and the radio, amplifier, and Surface Go 2 connected and on the air in less than 5 minutes. From kit to on the air in less than 15 minutes working meticulously and at a leisurely pace. I made 4 FT-8 contacts, then disassembled and had everything packed up again within 15 minutes. 

The First POTA Activation

For my first POTA activation I had 2 criteria. First, I wanted to go to a park that was close to my home QTH, did not require hiking, and had covered picnic tables to operate from. (I'm sure many of you have heard the stories of the incessant rain in's true!) Secondly, I wanted to operate QRP (without the amplifier) in FT-8 mode. Basically, I wanted my first activation to be pretty simple because it's still pretty darn cold here, the skies are in a constant state of ominous gray, and quite frankly I was just thinking it would be a quick activation; a proof of concept so to speak. 

With a bit of research on the POTA site I found a few parks within 10 miles of my QTH. Lake Sammamish State Park ticked off all the boxes for location. I drove to the park, and I found an out of the way log to sit on with a reasonably flat rock next to the log upon which I could set the radio and computer. Within 15 minutes I got everything up and running and almost immediately started making QSOs. In 2 hours of operation, I only made 28 QSOs with 1 DX QSO with a Japan station, an AK station, and also a couple southeast US stations. This was pretty good considering Lake Sammamish is just 30 feet above mean sea level and surrounded by mountains. 

Despite the cold temperatures (43 F) and wet ground I had fun! A few people came over and asked what I was doing. Some thought I was measuring something, and one woman even asked if I was measuring for changes in water height due to the Tonga volcano eruption and resulting tsunami. (I didn't have the heart to tell her that if that volcano had any impact on the water height of the lake we'd all have more things to worry about.) Another amateur radio operator stopped by and chatted for a bit, and another gentleman asked, "Do you know [name]." I said I didn't know him. He said, "Oh, he's also a ham radio guy in Illinois that I know."  

Final Thoughts For a First Successful POTA Activation

  • Make a checklist of EVERYTHING in your kit. Be meticulous you don't want to forget anything. 
  • Perform a test run at home. You don't want to get to your park and realize your soundcard isn't working because you don't have the right settings.
  • Charge all batteries (and devices) the night prior to the activation.
  • Choose an easy and nearby location for your first activation. Although you should have done a dry run at your home prior to driving to a park, it's still best to make your first park someplace easy and convenient. Maybe they should have different levels of parks, say beginner parks, intermediate parks, and advanced parks. 
  • Keep your first activation simple. 
  • Dress appropriately. It's easier to stay warm then it is to get warm. And if operating somewhere warm and sunny don't underestimate the value of shade and sunscreen.
  • Don't forget to pre-schedule your park activation on the Parks on the Air website prior to your activation. And once setup and on the air, it is acceptable to 'self-spot' so hunters know you're active.
  • The Parks on the Air program relies on activator QSO logs, so be sure to submit your ADI logfile via email to the appropriate coordinator after your activation. Instructions are on the website.
  • Take care of your equipment. The outside environment is harsh. Make sure to dry equipment if it gets wet or damp. Let equipment climatize in the kit if bringing from a cold environment to a warm house, or visa versa to prevent internal condensation. Wipe dirt / dust from gear. If you use a Buddipole or similar antenna setup spray metal parts with WD-40. If you use fiberglass poles, dry them off and wipe with a non-petroleum-based wax. Recharge your LifePo4 batteries. Partial discharge state doesn't hurt the batteries like it does SLA or AGMs but keeping them fully charged keeps you better prepared for emergencies.  
  • Be prepared to answer some random questions (especially if it is a popular park with a lot of foot traffic). 
  • Be willing to show and explain (in simple terms) what you're doing. For my FT-8 QSOs I was able to show them when I transmitted, the list of stations I was receiving and who I could "hear," and when a station called me and completed a QSO then we looked them up on QRZ so I could show them where that station was located. The kids loved it.
  • Most importantly...have fun!

WA7WJR activating POTA K-3216 Lake Sammamish State Park in Washington state.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

5 Years in Amateur Radio

Amateur Radio Station WA7WJR 2022

Well, actually it has been a little over 5 years since I got my ticket in October of 2016. During that time, I've managed to build a few wire antennas, learned Morse code, built an Elecraft K2/100 and a KAT100 from kits, operated QRP portable with my K2 and KX3, built an Ardruino weather station for my shack, worked all states (WAS) and DXCC in CW mode, operated maritime mobile aboard my sailboat, while crossing the Pacific Ocean, participated in a few contests as a little pistol, and operated 1-man mini-DXpeditions in Canada and Vietnam (with more coming soon). 

I have been having so much fun in this hobby it's hard to believe it has been 5 years. The hobby of amateur radio is pretty amazing. Amateur radio is a journey of learning, building technical skills, and communicating with others around the world who share similar passions. I initially got licensed because I wanted a ham rig on my sailboat to participate in maritime nets while sailing, and as a backup communication for the Iridium Go satellite system on my sailboat. But, shortly after getting my ticket I began to realize the fun and intellectual growth the hobby of amateur radio offered.

Since this is my first post, I thought I would review and recap my journey thus far with some stats and a few musings. 

In The Very Beginning - 2016

WA7WJR QSOs for 2016
2016 QSOs (Blue = Phone, Red = CW)

As stated, I got my ticket in October of 2016. I read the ARRL Handbook for Radio Communications and the ARRL Antenna Book for Radio Communications. I bought an Icom IC-7410, a MFJ antenna tuner, built a G5RV antenna and during a break in the almost constant rainy days I strung the antenna up from a tree in an inverted V pattern. After a few days of learning the radio and listening to QSOs I made my very first QSO with KA6LMS (Last Man Standing) on November 15, 2016. Band conditions were not ideal, so in mid-November I started learning Morse code using an MFJ-401B Econo Keyer and a Vibroplex Vibrokeyer. I practiced every night, and on December 8th I made my first CW mode QSO with CX6DRA in Uruguay. 

My shack was relegated to the 3rd bay in the garage. So, I built a frame using 2"x4"s to raise the floor and enclosed a 8'x12' area to serve as "the radio shack."  After looking online at several "homebrew" tables, I sat down and designed a table to fit my needs, while also allowing for expansion in the future. I used the logbook feature on for logging, and also sent out a QSL card to every contact. In 2 short months I operated 30 evenings and logged 156 QSOs. I received 104 QSL cards for a QSL card confirmation rate of 67%. I also had 71 confirmations via ARRL's Logbook of The World (LoTW) for a LoTW QSL rate of 45.5%. 

Perhaps it is my tech background, or perhaps it is my constant desire to learn, or perhaps it is my Type-A personality, whatever it is I dove into the hobby of amateur radio feet first and I was having a FUN!

First Full Year 2017

2017 QSOs (Blue = Phone, Red = CW)

January 1st, I made my first CW mode contact of the year with VK2DX in Australia. I was still learning Morse code and my fist was rather shaky, but I was definitely hooked on the CW mode. I was still active on the 3905 Century Club and OM International Sideband Society (OMISS) nets using phone modes, but I was definitely moving more towards operating primarily CW mode. Of the 447 QSOs I made in 2017 334 (74.7%) were CW contacts. In August 2017 I got my first mixed mode Worked All States (WAS) award. Of the 447 QSOs 59% confirmed with QSL cards, and I had a 42% confirmation rate on LoTW.

I kept a sharp lookout for special event stations and was always thrilled to have QSOs with special events such as the Museum Ships weekend, 13 Colonies, Navajo Code Talkers, and others. I also bought a KIO hexbeam antenna and put it on the second story roof of my home. Wow...what a difference over the homebrew G5RV antenna.

I was still working full-time at Microsoft and travelling quite a bit lecturing at software engineering conferences and universities. I was also flying to Vietnam 4 times a year to teach computer science classes at a university in Da Nang. In August 2017 I got a Vietnamese amateur radio license (XV9WJR), took my K2/100 and KAT100 with a Buddipole dipole antenna to Vietnam and setup a shack in my dormitory room. Between August 31 and November 27, I made 58 CW QSOs between the code reviews of my student's projects. Certainly not a lot of QSOs for a "DXpedition," but I wasn't there to rack up the numbers. I was having fun and had some great "rag-chew" QSOs despite the limited time I had to operate, and the noise generated by nearby powerlines which sometimes made it impossible to hear anything but static. Of the 58 QSO in Vietnam I had a QSL card return rate of 45.5% and an LOTW confirmation rate of 46.5%.

The Year of CW 2018

2018 QSOs (Blue = Phone, Red = CW, Yellow - Digital)

In early 2018 I was still working full-time at Microsoft, teaching in Da Nang, and also at the University of Washington in the evenings, and still flying to software conferences around the world. I was also quite active playing goalie for multiple teams in the Greater Seattle Ice Hockey League. I had a full schedule, but still made time for 566 QSOs from my home QTH and 222 CW QSOs operating in Vietnam. My wife gifted me a beautiful W1SFR Torsion Bar Key (#63) for my birthday. It is stunning and took a bit to get used to as it was quite sensitive.

Of the 566 QSOs from my home QTH only 15 were made in SSB mode. I had definitely transitioned to ditty-bop and was becoming quite comfortable at about 15 wpm. This year about 63.7% of my QSOs were confirmed in LoTW, and the QSL card confirmation rate dropped to only 22.5%.

I was still on the hunt for special event stations and finally got all 13 Colonies Special event stations. In October I flew to Con Son Island in Vietnam (IOTA AS-130), and participated in the Oceania DX Contest and was ranked #1 in Vietnam, #41 in Asia, and #55 in the world for single operator low power all band CW. Then when I returned home, I participated in my first CQ WW CW DX contest in November. I also started mucking around with FT-8 just to see what everyone was complaining about. My last 18 QSOs of 2018 were all digital FT-8 QSOs. 

The Absent Year 2019

2019 QSOs (Blue = Phone, Red = CW, Yellow - Digital)

Late 2018 and at 59 years of age I retired from Microsoft, teaching, and playing ice hockey. It was time to prepare to fulfill my dream of sailing across the Pacific Ocean. I only made 72 QSOs in 2019 with a little over half being FT-8 QSOs and the rest CW. My full-time attention was preparing myself and my sailboat to sail from Seattle to Hawaii. In August of 2019 I departed Seattle for Hawaii. After sailing 1100 nautical miles the forestay broke. I was quite fortunate I was not dismasted, but I had to turn around and return to San Francisco for repairs. Mid-October I found another weather window to once again set sail and arrived in Hawaii on November 4th. For information about my boat and travels see my website Quests of Discovery.

The Earth Came to a Halt 2020

2020 QSOs (Blue = Phone, Red = CW, Yellow - Digital)

For Christmas of 2019 I gifted myself a new Elecraft K3s transceiver, a P3 panadapter, a KAT500 ATU, and a KPA 500watt amplifier. After some modifications to the radio shack and learning all the bells and whistles on my new rig I was back on the air by February. (Yes...I am a 100% Elecraft fan-boy!)

I was also planning to depart Hawaii for Eastern Kiribati and activate Fanning Island, but as we all know...the SARS-COV2 virus escaped into the world and literally brought virtually all movement to a standstill. So, I bounced between Hawaii and Seattle for the year. I did some sailing in Hawaii and back in Seattle I was able to expand a little more by putting up a 55 foot retractable tower and mounting a SteppIR DB-18E antenna on top of that tower controlled by a SteppIr SDA 2000 controller and a Hy-Gain DCU-2 controller driving the rotator. I also put up an ICOM AH-710 folded dipole antenna for working 80- and 160-meter bands.

Between flying back and forth to Hawaii, installing the tower and antenna, and fly-fishing I made 621 QSOs in 2020. I participated in a few contests, I really started chasing Parks On The Air (POTA) activators. On June 17 I finally achieved DXCC (#24,036) in CW mode. Of the 621 QSOs I had a 52% QSL confirmation rate on LOTW, and a paltry 15% QSL card confirmation rate. While the vast majority of my QSOs continued to be CW mode (73.5%), I got on SSB again, fired up WSJT-X for some FT-8 play, and I also dabbled a little with RTTY diddle. 

Stuck in Fiji 2021

2017 QSOs (Blue = Phone, Red = CW, Yellow - Digital)

After a little more than 1 year in Hawaii I couldn't stand it any longer. Much of the world had lost all notion of common-sense. It was pretty amazing the majority of Hawaiians sort of had a laissez faire attitude about the pandemic. The majority of local haolies on the other hand lost their damn minds and ran round as if the world was about to end. Between the cold rainy weather of Seattle and the craziness and lack of cruising in Hawaii I decided to sail to Fiji in April 2021.

To make a long story short, all the major governmental services on Fiji operate out of Suva. Suva was locked down hard for nearly 7 months when the pandemic broke out 2 days prior to my arrival. Despite assistance from Tony (3D2AG) and contacting the 1 person in Fiji who issues amateur radio licenses multiple times, I was not able to obtain a license to operate in Fiji. So, between March and November I was radio silent. In October I sailed from Fiji to Guam single-handed 2800 nautical miles so I could fly home to have Thanksgiving with my family. 

For the 4 months I did operate I was operating at full throttle and managed to log 474 QSOs using CW, phone, FT-8 and even squeezed in a few RTTY contacts. Now, I have to be honest here...I was not diligent in sending out QSL cards in 2021 and am making up for it now. Of the 474 QSOs I made in 2021 I only received 11 QSL cards. But I had a QSL rate of 62.6% via LoTW.

Looking Ahead into 2022

After 5 years I am still very much engaged and continue to grow in this hobby of amateur radio. I am still thrilled every time I get a new DX entity. I haven't built an antenna or kit in a while, but I built and coded an Ardruino weather station for my shack and a few Ardruino projects for the boat.  I am still learning and expanding my skills and knowledge. My main software is still Ham Radio Deluxe (HRD), but I used N3FJP software for contest logging because it was very user friendly. I am not an avid contester, but I do enjoy radio sports and just did the ARRL RTTY Roundup (although I'm not sure why they decided to include FT-8 mode in an RTTY contest). I have my Elecraft KX3 rig ready to start some POTA activations and will be heading back to Guam in late February/early March timeframe and plan operate 1-man mini-DXpeditions from Guam and CNMI (Saipan and Tinian) in April. Beyond that I can't yet predict where I'll be, but I'll be on the air because I have fun in this hobby, I am still learning new things, building new skills, and I love operating amateur radio!

My Very First Dx-Pedition (2017)

  Every summer my family took a sailing trip to the Gulf Islands in British Columbia, Canada. The Gulf Islands seem less crowded than the Sa...