QRP to the Field is an annual event, held the last weekend in April, when amateur radio operators who have an irresistible case of spring fever pack up their QRP (low-power) ham gear and head for the great outdoors for the purpose of making contacts with other equally-afflicted amateurs. I am, of course, proudly standing in the ranks of those impaired individuals. I usually use QRP to the Field as an excuse to embark on my first backpacking trip of the year.
I don’t make it out for this event every year, but when I do I can usually count on a few curve balls being thrown my way. Usually the pitcher is Ma Nature, but sometimes it’s me. One year it snowed several inches overnight as we slept in our tents. Another year we endured a snowstorm just before the event but were lucky enough to discover bare, dry ground when we arrived at our camp site. Of course, it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect anything different this year.
Steve N0MHQ was my unwitting co-conspirator for this year’s event, and we hit the road early Saturday morning. Destination: the Ute Creek Trail in the Lost Creek Wilderness in Colorado. It took us about an hour and a half to get to the trail head. It usually takes an hour or so of hiking from there to arrive at our campsite on a little-visited ridge line off the trail, but this year would be different.
We began our hike up the trail, arriving at the point where we usually jump off the trail and begin a fairly steep ascent up the ridge line to the area we usually camp. But I was thinking back to ten or fifteen years ago when I decided to hike farther up the trail and subsequently discovered another jumping-off point that allowed an approach to our camp site from the opposite direction. This alternate route was longer but the climb was gentler, and I suggested to Steve that we could go that way if we wanted. Steve was looking forward to the steep climb even less than I was, so he was agreeable.
He should have known better.
Consider the following facts:
1) I’m over fifty years old, and anything that I remember from ten years ago or longer is probably wrong or may not have even occurred.
2) I didn’t bother with bringing a map, compass, or GPS because I had been on this hike (the usual route, not the alternative I’d proposed) about a million times.
So, there I was leading an expedition up the trail looking for a bush-whacking route that I only vaguely remembered from a decade or more ago. Not only would I need to recognize the right spot to jump off the trail, I’d also need to remember how to go cross-country to get to the right destination with no map. What do you suppose the chances were for success?
That’s right: zero. We hiked up the trail well past where I thought we should have found the jumping-off point without any hint of its presence. Finally, after about 45 minutes, I admitted defeat and we turned back, giving back all the elevation we’d gained.
At least it was a nice day for a hike.
We ended up turning an hour hike into about two and a half hours, finally reaching the top of the ridge line about 11 AM, Steve reminding me the whole way that we’d now climbed this twice. We decided on a camp site, dropped our packs, grabbed some lunch, and then we decided it was time to get the ham gear set up and start making some contacts. The first order of business was to get an antenna up in the air, and Ma Nature supplied a bounty of potential antenna supports in the form of majestic pine trees.
Getting an antenna up in the air in the woods is generally a matter of throwing a line over a tree branch and then hoisting the center of our dipole antenna up the tree. We’ve done it successfully more times than I can recall. Usually, I’ll tie a rock to the end of the line and then heave it over the branch. This day, though, Steve offered me a two-ounce lead sinker that he’d painted fluorescent orange. I took it, fixed my line to it, and prepared to throw. As I stood on the proverbial pitcher’s mound preparing to hurl the sinker, I felt a bit of concern over the fact that I’d not even warmed up in the bullpen before throwing this pitch. I gave it my best effort anyway but the sinker fell woefully short of its target.
Steve, standing by and watching the buffoonery, looked at me with a certain disdain, like he was wondering whether my IQ exceeded that of the lead sinker I’d just heaved. Apparently, there is technique to be used that I had overlooked. Sheepishly, I handed Steve the line and the sinker and asked him to demonstrate.
Steve began swinging the lead sinker vertically in a circular motion, apparently with the intent to release the line at just the right moment so that the sinker would travel over the target tree limb, taking the line with it. That was the theory, anyway.
The sinker sailed left. The sinker sailed right. The sinker sailed just under the target limb. The sinker once sailed on what looked like the perfect path, only to jerk back to the ground because Steve was standing on the line. Once, the sinker sailed over the limb but refused to fall down the other side far enough for us to reach it. After that toss, Steve decided to use his very thin line instead of my heavier line, and to his credit he was finally successful. We used his thin line as a pilot for my heavier line, and eventually we’d managed to hoist the center of the dipole a good distance into the air (though having taken many more attempts to do so than ever before).
Steve and I began extending the legs of the dipole in an inverted-vee configuration, thinking that the battle was one. All of a sudden the center of the dipole began a free-fall that was interrupted only by another branch in its path. Our success had turned into failure! The zip tie that I’d used to secure the line to the center of the dipole had failed to hold, causing the center to fall.
Curses! I’d had it with this antenna. It clearly did not desire to be hung in the tree. Or perhaps it simply did not want to be forced to radiate. Regardless, it was clear what had to be done. We went to the relief antenna. I suggested to Steve that he put up his inverted Y vertical for 20 meters, and we’d use that to get on the air.
Instantly, our fortunes shifted. Steve erected his antenna efficiently and without fanfare while I took every opportunity to berate my dipole as I repacked it. The dipole gave no indication of embarrassment or remorse, though, as I stuffed it into its bag.
Finally, we were on the air. I pulled out my trusty Elecraft K1, a reliable friend for many years, and within minutes we had bagged our first contact for the event. Steve and I leisurely took turns at the controls, working a station or two at a time in between the various tasks associated with getting our campsite ready for the evening. When not actually at the controls, we left the K1 running so we’d have the melodic CW playing in the background while we set up shelters and enjoyed our peaceful surroundings–in complete contrast to the clownishness experienced earlier.
To be truthful, Steve and I didn’t exactly knock ourselves out trying to maximize our score for the event. We took a relaxed, balanced approach to ensure we enjoyed the outdoor experience as much as the radio play. Between the two of us we barely made more than a dozen contacts, but neither of us ended up being particularly concerned about that. Despite doing everything the hard way–having taken the long way to our campsite, the antenna-launching debacle, and the low score–the weekend was definitely considered a wild success.
(You can see more pictures from our outing here.)