Tuesday, May 24, 2016

SOTA Activation of Lamb's Knoll (W3/WE-007)

Last April 10th I activated my first SOTA Peak in Maryland.  This is a belated activation report from that day.

Why Lamb's Knoll?  Well, it wasn't too far from my home QTH (less than a few hours' drive), and it's outside of Shenandoah National Park.  I don't mind Shenandoah National Park, but, frankly, my wife and I greatly miss the peaks in California.  California had wide-open spaces, and numerous mountain ranges to choose from, and generally a different attitude in the inhabitants than is here in the D.C. area.  On the eastern seaboard, things are a bit different.  The peaks are much lower, and almost all of them are connected by the Appalachian Trail, which, when you hike in spring and summer, feels like a long, buggy, spider-webby green tube that you hike through.  There aren't the same vistas, nor is there the elevation gain.  The A.T. is well-traveled by humans, so you don't even get the solitude.  It's a bit of a downer, but it's what we have until we're able to move back out west.  I've already activated a good number of Shenandoah Peaks, but now I want to get out a bit further from home.  That basically means I head northwest to the Appalachians in Maryland or Pennsylvania, or head southwest to other Appalachian peaks in Virginia or North Carolina.

(Just so you know, I've gotten more than 50% of the way to Mountain Goat status by activating peaks in California, so I maintain my SOTA membership as part of the W6 association, not he W4V--the Virginia SOTA association.)

We set out early that Sunday morning to activate this summit, which is really a bump of South Mountain, a long ridgeline which forms the northernmost terminus of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Our plan was to pick up the Appalachian Train at Gathland State Park, and hike north a few miles to the peak.  Overall, it was an easy hike, although the trail is fairly rocky in places so be careful not to roll and ankle!  Only the first bit of the hike up the A.T. from Gathland State Park was particularly steep. 

We saw a few people out, but I think that many of the hikers stayed inside owing to the cool temperatures as measured by the Jeep, parked at Gathland State Park:
Chilly.  36 Degrees F.  But it was sunny and there wasn't a cloud in the sky.

The A.T. was rocky on this hike.
Near the use trail from the A.T. to the Lamb's Knoll summit, there is a single rock outropping with a halfway decent view.  My lovely bride and I snapped a selfie.  (Yes.  I said it.  Selfie.)
The summit is not particularly scenic...there are many trees that obscure any possibility of a view, and the summit also has a few buildings on it that are surrounded by fences.

Nearby the summit where I activated there was a very closely guarded government facility.  The facility had literally dozens of security cameras covering virtually every possible angle, an oddly-large parking lot--far more expansive than necessary to provide parking for any of the visible buildings, and an absolutely massive log periodic array, likely used for HF.  Of note, in my short time at the site I saw the antenna rotate, so clearly there is some sort of government-operated radio activity occurring there (collecting SIGINT or MASINT, perhaps?)
Here's a Google Earth view of the summit.  My activation location is on the southern edge of the southern-most cluster of buildings.  The other access-restricted government facility is north of my location.  Notice the massive parking lot.
Here's a Google Earth image of the MASSIVE log periodic array.  I saw it change azimuth, so somebody was doing something with it.  The boom of the antenna was actually an aluminum truss--it was a very large antenna.

Back to the SOTA activation:  I recall that conditions weren't particularly good.  I was content to get the required four contacts and then move on.  AT&T cell coverage was plentiful, so I self-spotted.  Here's my log:
Note the gap in time between talking to W0MNA (Gary) and W9MRH.  Conditions weren't very good.  I also attempted CW but didn't make any CW contacts.  Got 'er dun, though!

My QTH on Lamb's Knoll.  By the way, I really like my Thermarest Z-Seat.  I know it's just foam, but it's very comfortable.
We hiked back the same way we came.  Here are view's of my APRS-laid breadcrumbs from APRS.fi:

The packets from the first portion of my hike apparently weren't picked up my an iGate.
Here's the view of the contour lines.
I'll speak a bit now about what's in the area around South Mountain.  During the Civil War the area was critical to the Battle of AntietamGathland State Park was the location of a particularly bloody duel between Confederate Artillery batteries and infantry companies, which held the pass, and infantry regiments from New Jersey.  The New Jersey troops took the pass at great cost, earning a tactical victory, but the Confederates succeeded in their strategic aim of delaying the Union advance.  The State Park itself is the former estate of an American journalist, and it is also the site of the War Correspondent's Memorial.  If you're in the area, the park is worth visiting.
Here's the War Correspondent's Memorial.

Burkittsville is nearby, which has the dubious distinction of having the fictional Blair Witch fictionally inhabit the area around the actual town in an fictional documentary which was an actual movie.  The town is small but historic.  If you approach Gathland State Park from the east, you will travel through the town.

The area around South Mountain today is home to some cottage industries, including the production of apples, hard ciders, and meads.  (We sampled both the cider and the mead after hiking.  It was delicious!)  There is a also an excellent potter who lives just down the west side from the pass where Gathland State Park is.  After returning to the Jeep, my wife and I visited the potter and she bought a lovely coffee mug there.

It was a good day.  A nice brisk hike, some radio fun, pottery shopping, some mead and cider...it was all great.


Monday, May 23, 2016

NPOTA Activation: Prince William Forest Park - DZ08

Greetings, all.

About a month ago the XYL and I headed up the I-95 corridor a few miles to Prince William Forest Park to do get away from the suburban life at my home QTH, to camp out a night in the woods, and to knock out a National Parks On The Air (NPOTA) activation.

Prince William Forest Park is a National Park Service-ran facility of 19,000 acres and the largest park in the DC metro area.  It abuts Marine Corps Base Quantico, and lies right on the geologic border of the Piedmont and Tidewater regions of Virginia.  There is a marker in the park denoting one of the geographic boundaries--that marker location is not particularly scenic, but it is interesting.
XYL hiking through Prince William Forest Park.

My wife and I are immensely thankful for this piece of land because it's basically the only relatively unmolested natural land near us, and we spend a good amount of time hiking around there.  She goes to the park several times per week, and I go there every week or two.

The park has a unique history.  It was originally homestead land for several farms.  There are several family cemeteries on the park grounds, and there is also a military cemetery on the grounds containing graves from soldiers who served in the Civil War through more modern times.  The Civilian Conservation Corps managed the lands during the Great Depression.  In World War II, the park's lands were used by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was the forerunner of the modern CIA.  The OSS used the park for training spies and radio operators from 1942-1945.

Today the park has numerous trails and a few options for camping.  It is full of trees, ferns, streams, and swamps, and is really representative of the mid-Atlantic states' eastern seaboard.  It's not beautiful like Yosemite or Death Valley or other similar parks.  But we're still very glad to have it so nearby.

We went to the park on the afternoon of 16 April, a Saturday.  We took a campsite, and then decided to do a hike for a few hours.  After returning, we lit the camp fire and I started to operate a bit.  I used by basic SOTA setup:  The FT-817ND, the LDG Z-817 autotuner, my Palm Mini Paddles, a homemade version of the EARCHI wire antenna, and the mic.  I also brought my Yaesu VX-8DR HT.  I brought a 7 Amp-Hour gel cell battery pack to power everything.  I also brought my MFJ QRP SWR meter for no reason whatsoever.  My QTH was the picnic table, and the wire was slung into a tree.
N0PCL at the PWF QTH.  The detritus of camping surrounds me.  The HT is quiet, but the 817ND is doing fine work.

The VX-8 was basically useless.  I attempted to get some APRS packets out to the world so that I could be seen on APRS.fi, but no luck was to be had.  It was just a remote area, and, frankly, APRS coverage is spotty in my area as it is.  (I'm thinking about addressing that myself as a project, but that's for another day).
N0PCL copying CW.

N0PCL doing fun things with radios.
The 817 did fine.  I did manage to self-spot using my iPhone to the spotting network, so that assisted with getting contacts.  The first night I managed to get four contacts.  But I was hungry, so I decided to pack up and make dinner with my lovely XYL. After dinner we enjoyed the campfire and retired to the tent for a good night's sleep.

The next morning (but still the same "UTC day") I finished up the activation.  I needed six more contacts.  So I fired up the 817 again and got the necessary contacts.

Screen capture of my electronic logbook.
Overall it was a good activation.  I'm continually surprised at how well portable & QRP ham radio can do.  But sometimes it's really a challenge, too.  It took a good bit of time to get the necessary 10 NPOTA Chasers to make this activation count.  Meanwhile the XYL headed out to do a solo hike.  I then gladly packed up the site and our adventure came to a close.

Thanks, Chasers!