Ham Radio

July 2020 Expeditions to CN98

My goal for July 2020 was to activate rare grid square CN98 for the benefit of FFMA and other 6-meter grid chasers. This turned out to be more difficult than expected.

In theory, the closer parts of CN98 are only a 90-minute drive from my home in Seattle. In practice, the "closer parts" were reachable but not workable. Thus, CN98 required several trips:

July 2 2020

Mt Pilchuck

CN98cb: On Thursday July 2nd, I drove two hours up the horribly pitted unpaved road for a day-trip to Mt Pilchuck. It was windy, raining and visibility nil. After struggling for a few hours to make 6m contacts, I gave up and drove home.

Looking at the topo maps at home after the trip, it turns out the operating location is very poor on VHF.


July 10 2020

Darrington Ridge

CN98gj: On Friday July 10th, I drove 2.5 hours up the pleasant valley roads beyond Darrington up to a ridge that looked promising on paper. This was a little better than Pilchuck the week before, but not much.

In six hours I made almost six dozen contacts, half of them in the PNW at distances less than 400 miles. A brief opening to Arizona around DM33 netted six contacts over 1,000 miles. Only one contact (KO9A in Illinois) was over 1,500 miles. This was a disappointing trip, which was largely limited by my eastward horizon being a slightly above 0-degrees. I need a lower take-off angle.

Any hilltops close to Seattle are always on western parts of the Cascades which will always face bigger mountains looking east.

July 18 2020

Fox Peak

CN98vc: On Saturday July 18th, I drove five hours to Fox Peak, CN98vc with Ed N7PHY and Brian KJ4ZTP. We camped on site from noon Saturday through noon Monday. The first half of our time was during the CQ WW VHF contest.

I contacted 254 hams in 124 grid squares. My favorite contact was to Edfel KP4AJ in Puerto Rico, 3,600 miles away. This is pretty incredible for 50 MHz.

Remarkably, the 6m band was open to somewhere most of the weekend. It was very much like a spotlight – only a small region came in strongly at any one time. It sure was fun to practically own the band while working the distant east coast squares of FN01-FN43, a double-hop into Pennsylvania-New Hampshire.

Now, rather than more boring statistics here are some observations.

Fox Peak is wide open to the east

I used FT8 digital mode, but I frequently hear about FT4 since, in theory, FT4 could vastly speed up contacts compared to FT8. After all, we were enjoying good 6m openings with strong signals, so FT4 should be a shoe-in. I tried both listening and calling on FT4 for about half an hour. But only one signal was found, and no contacts were completed. FT4 is not "faster" if nobody is there.

Whether to use "Contest Mode" setting on expeditions is a big topic of discussion these days. So, I announced in advance that, as a portable station in a rare grid square, I would use "contest mode" setting in WSJT. It has several advantages: a shorter exchange; it speeds up contacts; if the other party uses CM then I always receive his grid square; knowing his grid square helps to point my beam. On the other hand, if the other end has not set “contest mode” then I don’t receive a grid square and worse yet WSJT needs manual intervention since it doesn’t always auto-sequence.

Contest mode complaint

However, it turned out to be very confusing to people that I continued to use CM after the contest. Hilarity did not ensue. Several people sent testy suggestions that I change my mode. Never mind that I announced this in advance and stayed with my plan; never mind that I'm on an expedition to a rare grid square. But when you encounter random folks after a contest there’s no way that I could've reached everyone in the country. In reality, the VHF advantages are important, and I believe that WSJT should make "Contest Mode" setting the default for VHF and do away with the useless ‘funny numbers’ SNR reports.

Dry powdery dust at Fox Peak

This was, for several reasons, the best location for CN98. I'll put Fox Peak on the "top CN98 spot". Although it's a long drive from Seattle, Fox Peak CN98vc made an excellent location for both camping and propagation. How nice, for a change. This was my third CN98 expedition this month; the other two trips were only a two-hour drive from Seattle – they made convenient one-day trips but were a complete bust. This trip to Fox Peak put me at 6,200’ on the eastern slopes of the Cascades, where the horizon is a below 0° facing most of the US. Sweet!

Chasing chasers: Before the grid expedition, I asked who wants CN98 and got 43 replies, from which I made a list of beam headings before departure, something that’s difficult to do on a mountaintop. Ham radio is a very unreliable hobby – it’s really easy to make random contacts but very difficult to make specific contacts with specific people. By the end of this trip, I reached 30 of my 43 known target list (70%)! I’m extremely pleased about providing them (and over 200 others) with rare CN98.

Donut hole

You ever hear about the "Donut Hole" in 6-meter propagation? This is not something to eat. Actually, we hate it. The donut hole is that annoying low-calorie gap between single- and double-hop. I’ve always heard about it but had never really seen it for myself. I made enough contacts to extract statistically significant data. See attached graph from this CN98 expedition, showing some awkward distances of 700 miles, 2200 miles and 2800 miles with very few contacts. Click on the image to see it full size.

My mountaintop station used a kilowatt amp but it was almost always loafing along at 250w that weekend. With these strong spotlight openings, it was enough to command the band. Many people would tail-end my contacts and I seldom needed to call CQ. This is highly productive! Some people even spent an extra sequence or two to send me “+24” and the like.

One lane road to Fox Peak

The road up is 22 miles of light to medium grade; nothing very steep. Pretty narrow - a small trailer could make it if being very careful. The road, like the clearing on top, is composed of extremely fine powdery dust. Very few rocks and only a few washboards. Good ground clearance helps but most sedans could make it – as long as they use the Gold Creek entrance. Other routes are shorter but much more precarious. There are only a few places to pass oncoming traffic which would be the biggest hazard for someone pulling a trailer. Allow at least an hour after leaving the paved road. Don't be in a hurry, and slow way down to reduce dust by some houses at the bottom.

Camping on Fox Peak

Fox Peak offers a beautiful scenic wide-open camping area, although it is composed entirely of powdery dust. The night sky was incredible. We saw Comet Neowise both nights with the naked eye. The Milky Way was out in full splendor. From our campsite in the large open area it’s a brief walk to Fox Peak itself, a little cone nearby, which is an unworked SOTA Peak. (Hint, hint, to you SOTA folks.)

Weather was actually pretty survivable. Frankly, it was as good as it gets! Daytime temperatures of 75 and nighttime of 65 degrees. A very gentle breeze kept us cool. Meanwhile, down in the valley they were sweltering at 95 degrees and up.

Wildlife was abundant. There were lots and lots of bees, flies, moths and bugs. Only a few mosquitoes. At first, I thought they were attracted to the interior shade and plastic parts of my 4Runner. Then I realized the atmosphere contained a homogeneous mixture of at least 500 insects per cubic meter (500 bfmb/m^3) and the inside of my car was merely a representative sample of the general atmosphere. Strangely, they were not hungry. None of them bit any of us, except one mosquito that didn’t read the memo. I brought bug repellent but never used it. There were also fearless birds hopping under our food table and, at dusk, some very bous’s (bats of unusual size).

Barry K7BWH in QST, October 2020, page 75

The October 2020 issue of QST, page 75, has my picture and a brief mention. So, my three CN98 grid expeditions that month, after weeks of preparation, a big station, a big adventure and a 5-hour drive, 30 miles of forest roads each way, three days and two nights on site, tons of contacts including Puerto Rico, all reduced to one sentence and a selfie, lol. Fame is fleeting!

Thanks to everyone operating 6m for all the fun. The skip season is winding down and I don’t have another major trip planned until next year.

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