Only use enough power to make the contact. That’s the advice often given to hams. How much is enough? One way to find out is to get on the air and start making waves. Or, I thought, check the propagation numbers, evaluate the site elevation and make a turkey-brained guess about how much power I would need. Here is the backstory of my most recent park activation and how I got it all wrong.
As recently as last year the nearest POTA entity to my home QTH was an Ontario provincial park about a half hour’s drive away. However, the park is closed in winter, the driveway gated and the whole area surrounded by “No Parking” signs. My first activation had to wait until the provincial parks opened in the spring.
Then something wonderful happened. A whole bunch of new local conservation areas were added to the POTA entity list. Suddenly I was surrounded by multiple choices for activation targets. And then, at the start of 2023, I became aware of even more additions and one of them, Colpoys Lookout (VE-6007), is one of my favourite local spots. Temperatures in this part of southern Ontario were nudging north of freezing, the prolific snowfall from Christmas weekend was mostly thawed and I had an irresistible urge to get outside and go play radio.
Colpoys Lookout is a very small conservation area along Grey County Road 1 near the town of Wiarton. In a couple of weeks Wiarton will come alive for its one day of fame each year when an albino groundhog emerges from its den to tell lies about the weather for the next six weeks. The conservation area sits about halfway between the lofty heights of Skinners Bluff to the south and Colpoys Bay (part of Georgian Bay, which is part of Lake Huron) to the north. The terrain plunges about 300 feet from the top of the bluffs down to the lake, in a quite a short distance.
I parked up and checked the propagation conditions. “Poor” during daytime on 20m, 30m, 40m and 80m. Strike 1! I looked up at Skinners Bluff towering above me to the south. From southern Ontario most of my contacts would be to the south. Strike 2! There are no tall trees at Colpoys Lookout and power lines cut straight through the middle of the park. I pulled my MFJ-1979 telescopic vertical out of the antenna box in the back of the truck and set it up. My counterpoise could best be described as a Ram 1500 truck. Look up “compromise antenna” in the ham dictionary and there is a picture of my “trucktenna”. Strike 3!
My Yaesu FT-891 was wound down to 5 watts already. “QRP ain’t gonna cut it today” said the devil on my shoulder as my hand reached out and cranked the HF power up to a dizzying 20 watts. Preparing myself for a possible failed activation attempt, I tuned around the usual POTA watering holes on 20m. Nothing was bending the needle on my virtual signal strength meter. I called one POTA activator and scored a P2P (Park to Park) to kick off the day then listened to several weak stations working hunters. I was wasting time. I decided to start running a frequency to try and get some action going.
Instantly I knew I had got it all wrong. The “Hunter Express” train hit me like a ton of bricks. Within seconds I was fighting some of the biggest pile-ups I have ever experienced. This was on a Monday afternoon, mid-winter! The FT-891 is a menu-driven radio and changing the transmit power level in the middle of a formidable pile-up is not very feasible so I decided to keep calm and carry on.
Pile-ups have become a “thing” with POTA. While it is gratifying to be able to work the mandatory minimum 10 contacts inside 10 minutes, it is also exhausting. The activation took me 45 minutes during which 34 QSOs went in the log. My wife was in the truck with me. She quietly reads her Steven King novels while I pound brass in the back seat. “All done” I said to her as I turned off the radio. “Why don’t we go do another while the weather is good?” she asked. “Umm, maybe not today” I replied with my ears still ringing from listening to CW cacophony for the last three quarters of an hour.
I think my brain goes numb while I am working these very intense activations. I have considered various ways to make them more manageable but the ideas don’t translate into action during the heat of an activation. Maybe set my radio’s filters to a very narrow bandwidth and use the RIT control to pick out stations from the melee. Of course there is also a technique to limit the number of stations calling simultaneously – a technique I am going to have to get used to – reduce transmit power! I believe they call it QRP.
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