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Publicizing Ham Radio Can be a Day in the Park
My penance to the squirrels
WIDEWATER, VIRGINIA — Operating amateur (ham) radios from national and state parks has become popular, thanks to the explosive growth of the Parks on the Air (POTA) program. Most activations are solo affairs, usually lasting for a brief period of time (10 two-way contacts the minimum for a successful activation) and they might not be noticed by park visitors or staff. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Amid some anxiety about transitioning from casual park hunter (trying to contact parks from one’s home station) to first-time activator, I decided it would be prudent to call for backup.
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During the few months from the idea to activation the scope expanded, yielding a template that others, including ham clubs seeking to attract new members or motivate existing ones, can utilize.
The location for our one-day event was a relatively new state park close in Stafford County, Virginia. Widewater State Park is at the end of a historic peninsula with waterfront access to the Potomac River and Aquia Creek. I had become a member of the Friends of Widewater State Park and was delighted to discover the groups’ president, Darlene Griffis, is the daughter of a ham. When I raised the idea of cooperating with the Friends’ group and park management for a ham radio activity that would invite the public, both Darlene and the park’s manager, Paul Anderson, who had previous knowledge of hams activating from Virginia state parks, were immediately enthusiastic. They reserved for us one of the park’s shelters, with four long picnic benches, next to the visitor’s center and parking lot – a prime location. Paul also granted permission to erect antennas and tie them to trees, if needed, on the condition that we return the park at the end of the day to its natural state.
I coordinated with the ranger and the Friends’ group president to draft a press release, which some area media published, including a local newspaper.
Now the pressure was on to make the event a success.
I devised a slogan to recruit other hams and spread the word at a meeting of the Stafford Amateur Radio Association (SARA) and on the club’s weekly VHF nets: ‘Keep it Safe. Keep it Simple, Keep it Fun.”
This was not a Field Day. There would be no pressure to make a lot of contacts or rack up multipliers, typical of ham radio contest events. I hoped curious members of the public would be able to gain insight into our hobby and have the ability to ask questions on site.
Rather than use one of SARA’s call signs I decided to apply for a 1 x 1 call sign. These shortest possible call signs in the FCC inventory can be used for a limited period of time to promote events or bring awareness to a cause. The obvious choice for this POTA activation was W4W for “Wide Water” – the original spelling of the peninsula where the park is located.
For the application I needed to tie it to an event. I settled on Squirrel Awareness Month as penance. I had a running feud with the furry rodents on my one-acre property. No matter how I protected our bird feeder the scurry of squirrels managed to get to it. Eventually I found that squirting them with diluted apple cider vinegar deterred all but a few. My wife, who treats all animals equally with love, repeatedly chastised me. So W4W, in honor of Squirrel Awareness Month, it would be.
Once W4W was granted for our use, I ordered a customized outdoor banner from a company in Las Vegas, designed to display the unique call, the park’s name, the POTA site designation (K-7636) and, of course, a squirrel mascot.
The Saturday of the activation brought lovely autumn weather. While unseasonably warm, it was the perfect temperature for sitting outside all day. A short period of wind gusts toppled one tripod with a VHF/UHF antenna. That was the only casualty.
The seven operators, with boxes of gear, coax, batteries, solar panels, test equipment and antennas, showed up between 9 and 10 am. We set up four operating positions with the first one getting on air within an hour of arrival. The park would close at dusk and we would have to have everything packed up before then, so a quick set-up was ideal.
A few of us had coordinated by e-mail in advance on who would bring what. For future activations involving numerous operators it would be ideal to have a shared list online to avoid duplication and streamline the amount of equipment being brought.. Half the fun of ham radio, however, is experimenting with different configurations of rigs and antennas so this did not turn out to be a significant operating issue for our activation.
Our W4W operators had different skill sets and familiarity with POTA. This was my first activation and I wasn’t familiar with the easy-to-use HAMRS log program for POTA. I handed out ARRL logbooks on site for those who wanted to manually log, which is also how I recorded contacts until creating a HAMRS file later at home. Scott Houppermans, KQ4EOL, an experienced POTA activator, agreed to create a master log after the event from copies of the paper logs or .adi files of the other operators.
Soon our part of the park sprouted numerous vertical and horizontal antennas, most of them patiently erected by Doc Rhoney, W4VHZ and Guy Cox, KQ4LOI, whose impressive collection of gear ran the length of a picnic table.
While we collectively had the capability to cover 160 meters through UHF, we mostly stuck to 40 through 10 meters for this daylight operation, with that lowest band being notably wide open throughout the day. The emphasis was on Single Sideband and CW (Morse Code), although several of us operating W4W are mostly active from our home stations on digital modes. Adding digital modes might have been appreciated by non-hams more comfortable with keyboards and displays than microphones or Morse keys. Some of us eschewed headphones so that passersby might be lured by the cacophony.
I regularly went around the tables to see which bands and modes were being used and relayed that to the other operators. There was minimal cross-band interference except for the two stations, which were both using the Icom IC-7300, even at 10-watt power settings. The Icoms were operated by me and Joe Kennedy, N2FW. We live just a couple of hundred meters apart but have never experienced any interference from each other – likely because both of us tend to be QRP (low-power) operators at home, as we were at the park.
With help from Martyn Williams, KJ6SDF, I was able in just a few minutes to get the preferred antenna I brought along ready for action. I had previously field tested the Alpha Antennas HF Magloop on my backyard deck at a maximum power of 10 watts on the FT-8 and FT-4 digital modes and had been impressed with how many DX (long-distance) contacts I had made. The manufacturer cites a maximum power rating of 50 watts for the antenna on CW and 100 watts PEP (peak envelope power) for Single Sideband.
In our W4W field operation, on some bands we couldn’t maintain a practical SWR (standing wave ratio) above 25 watts but that lower power limit was fine for our purposes. The activation was also the first time I used the Bioenno Power 30Ah LFP battery. It maintained constant voltage throughout our 7-hour operating period, during which we completed about 80 QSOs at our console. I realized how lightweight the lithium ferrophosphate battery is by comparison when I lugged Joe’s traditional 12V lead acid battery from the parking lot to our park benches.
There was enough sunlight that Scott remarked his 150-watt solar array had no problem powering his Yaesu FT-710 at full power for the entire activation period, although he brought along a 60Ah battery just in case. For an antenna, Scott used a Chameleon CHA LEFS 8010 with a 38-foot mast on a tripod.
“I can pick any of thousands of parks, pack my gear, and operate on my own all day long,” said Scott, usually a POTA solo activator. “It was great to spend the day with fellow hams and learn a thing or two about operating together in a close environment without stepping on each other over the airwaves.”
Each time a member of the public appeared, several of us took turns engaging with the visitors, making sure they signed our visitors’ log and they received a copy of our club brochure.. My nephew, Neil Herman, KE0SJS, explained ham radio basic to some of the visitors while I found myself getting back-to-back calls on HF. It wasn’t exactly a pileup but enough activity to give the impression to non-hams that we were generating international excitement.
The number of sunspots and a low noise floor allowed me, Martyn and Neil at our position to complete contacts with multiple stations in the Caribbean and Europe. Not bad for low power and an antenna which packs into a duffel bag.
The total sum of the activation among all seven operators was 212 contacts, which the group declared to be above our expectations.
The most surprising result of the day was that several guests who stopped by after seeing the items in the newspaper or the ARRL Letter, turned out to be licensed but inactive hams. They remarked that our display of activity and the obvious fun we were having was an incentive for them to do it again. We also invited them to attend a monthly meeting of SARA, of which I recently was elected president.
The park manager stopped by twice to see how things were going. When it was over, Paul exclaimed how impressive our operation was, including its ability to generate visitors and the relatively small footprint of our antennas. He invited us to return in the spring for another activation. What better endorsement for ham radio and POTA than that?
As we prepared to break down the gear, one curious squirrel appeared. This time I welcomed the animal’s presence. After all, our W4W activation was as much for him as us.