Yesterday I found myself just north of Mendocino, CA. I was in the middle of an extended business / pleasure trip in Oregon and California. The pleasure part of the trip was to include as many Parks on the Air (POTA) activations as I could squeeze into each day as I wandered down the California Coastal Range and coastline.
I had decided to try to do four activations in one day. There happened to be four California state parks within a one-hour’s drive of one another. My plan was to start at Russian Gulch, go to Mendocino Headlands right on the coast, head east to Mendocino Woodlands State Park and finish up at Van Damme State Park.
I arrived at this fascinating state park on the coastline around 9:30 am. After paying my day-use fee I found a secluded picnic area high on a bluff right next to the ocean.
I spied that table on the left and felt that was the best place to set up. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
A major stream / river enters the ocean at this state park and a magnificent concrete-arch bridge carries US 1 over the large ravine.
What a wonder of engineering and construction! The infamous Russian Gulch bridge. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
Just after I threw my water bottle up into a tree next to the picnic table, a young boy and his grandfather appeared from the edge of the bluff. There must have been a hiking trail there.
As happens most of the time, they were intensely curious and asked what I was doing.
“I’m about to get on the air and do some amateur radio. Could you do me a favor and take my photo? No one is usually around to see how I put up my antenna.”
Thanks Jack for the great photo! Copyright 2017 Jack ????
Jack was the young boy’s name and he didn’t hesitate to grab my camera. I was thankful that he took several photos.
I’m ready to rock and roll using a mini Pico Paddle sending invisible dihs and dahs up into the ether. I was in a great mood, but you’d not think so with this serious look! Copyright 2017 Jack ?????
Within minutes I was on the air while Jack and his grandfather watched with great delight. To send invisible radio waves up into the sky, I use an Elecraft KX3 radio, a simple 29-foot wire that has a 9:1 unun at the bottom and a small mini Pico Paddle to send Morse code. I power the radio with a BioennoPower power pack.
I do carry a microphone if I want to talk, but since I use only 10 watts of power or less most of the time it stays hidden it its box most of the time. The radio propagation has been so dismal this summer that it’s quite hard to do voice communications at low power.
It didn’t take but eighteen minutes to acquire the ten required conversations with other radio operators to officially activate the park. I got several more and decided to move on.
I thanked Jack for his help and told him to contact me if he wanted more information about amateur radio.
Let’s hope Jack takes an interest in the hobby so we can pass the torch to him. Copyright 2017 Unknown Grandfather – TNX for taking the photo!
I felt like Mary Anne the steam shovel as I sat at that table. If you’ve read the classic children’s book Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, you know how Mary Anne worked harder and faster the more people that watched her dig.
If you have grandkids and they’ve never read this book, get it. I still have a copy. It’s one of the BEST romance books I’ve ever read. Seriously. CLICK the IMAGE NOW to have it delivered to your home or to your grandchild’s home.
“Turn around you idiot. This is going to be a massive waste of time.”
That’s the thought I had as I drove deeper and deeper along Little Lake Road into the forest east of Mendocino, CA this afternoon. The lake the road was named after sure must have been small, because I missed it.
I was on my way to try to do a Parks on the Air (POTA) activation at Mendocino Woodlands State Park. POTA is an international program where some amateur radio operators go outdoors to different state and national parks across the world, set up small radios and try to have ten separate conversations with other operators while at the park.
Those who are outdoors and do this are called activators and the operators who may be at home at the other end of the magic invisible radio waves are called chasers. Complete the ten conversations and you officially activate the park.
Failure Is Possible
Just a little over a day before I attempted to activate a California state park about seventy miles north, Humboldt Redwoods State Park. It was in a canyon as well and it took me about an hour to achieve one simple conversation. I reluctantly gave up and drove away because I had a long drive ahead of me and didn’t want to do it in the dark.
Getting to the Mendocino Woodlands State Park is an adventure on its own. You travel miles east of the town of Mendocino, CA. With each mile you travel, the condition of the road gets worse. Eventually it transforms to a dust-choked gravel surface that used to be the rail bed for the tiny trains that wrestled the giant redwood logs out of this majestic forest.
Planning to go here? You’re going to travel several miles of this road and the closer you get to the park, the worse shape the road is in. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
I shook my head driving knowing I would go to all the effort and come away with nothing. The walls of the canyon were steep – church-steeple steep. As I navigated curve after curve I anointed this wilderness the Radio Waves Canyon of Death.
Camera shots like this transform a three-dimensional view into two dimensions. You simply can’t get a feel for how steep the hillside is. It’s at least 45 degrees, maybe 50 degrees. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
As I passed each massive redwood tree on the sheer canyon walls, my brain painted a vivid picture of my radio waves bouncing off the walls of the canyon like a giant game of Pong. All I could think of were the electromagnetic pulses from my CW paddles going back and forth never escaping the clutch of the wretched walls of rock and stone.
My college degree is in geology. We used topographic maps all the time. If you know how to read one, then you know how incredibly steep the canyon walls are. This is the topo map of the park. Copyright 2017, Google, Inc. All Rights Reserved
My guess is I traveled at least another three or four miles up the gravel road until I finally arrived at the park entrance. It turns out this is the most unique state park I’ve ever been in.
A First For Me
The park is carved up into three giant camps with small cabins, larger buildings for cooking and eating and any number of other improvements. Groups and families rent the camps for a week at a time. Witches and warlocks meet here once a year and all sorts of other unusual groups gather here to do who-knows-what.
I stopped at Camp One. It was home for the week for a massive family and they welcomed me to share a lone picnic table among the giant trees to try to see how fast I’d get skunked.
They were mesmerized that some total stranger would drive so far to try to pluck invisible waves out of the ether. Most had no idea that amateur radio was still around and alive.
The mess hall for Camp 1 is just behind me. Can you figure out yet why I have that impish look on my face? Copyright 2017 Maretta ???
I was able to launch my trusty water bottle about 40 feet nearly straight up and capture a perfect branch in a tree right next to the table. I’d need every bit of its vertical alignment to try to send a signal out of this wretched canyon where radio waves come to die.
You can’t see the branch I captured with my water bottle and halyard. It’s at least 15 feet above the top of the photo. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
Within minutes I was on the air with my Elecraft KX3 powered by my trusty BioennoPower power pack. It charged up all morning because the plan for today was to do radio at four California state parks in and around Mendocino.
Before leaving the town of Mendocino, I was able to use my cell phone to reach out to the POTA operators who use the POTA Facebook group page. They knew what time I might get on the air and I told them the frequencies I’d try.
The first thing I did was spin the dial on 20 meters and heard nothing. When I mean nothing, I mean nothing.
No doubt. The ravenous canyon walls were gobbling the signals. Damn them and the tectonic forces that created them!
I took a deep breath and started to send CQ CQ.
“Do you smell that? Get ready for the skunk my friend.”
That’s exactly the thought that went through my head.
BOOM! Within seconds Bob Elsinger, VE6UX, was answering me. You say big deal. I say are you kidding? He’s from Alberta, Canada!
He was hundreds of miles away and on the other side of the Coastal Range I was trying to defeat
But it gets better. He gave me a real signal report of 559.
That’s remarkable as I was straining to reach him with only ten watts of power. That’s just a little more power than you’d use to fire up two old-fashioned night lights.
The Conveyor Belt
One after one I made contact with other operators. I felt like I was sitting on a spring ready to pop up into the air.
Was it possible? Could I wrestle victory from the Grim Reaper of Radio Waves on this day in this remote part of California?
The QSOs, a fancy radio term for completed radio conversations, kept happening just like the pieces of chocolate candy coming down the conveyor belt in that classic scene from the I Love Lucy show.
It only took twenty-six minutes to get to the minimum ten QSOs to activate the park. I had done it! It was a surreal feeling. Just a mere eighteen months ago I could have no more done what I had just did than drag a log up the canyon wall.
I ended up with thirteen QSOs.
Just before I got on the air a very nice woman came and sat down from me across the table. Her name was Maretta. She was fascinated in the entire magic show that was in progress and was exceedingly polite.
She watched the entire activation and was kind enough to take the photo of me sitting at the table.
“Would you consider helping me explain all this to a group of Girl Scouts I work with?” she asked.
I immediately agreed and said we could do it using Skype or some other video conferencing. She left and immediately a small boy named Tip came up.
“What are you doing?” he pondered.
I explained it all to him while his father joined us. Moments before he came up, I had started to pack up. Fortunately I didn’t get too far.
“Can you show me how this works?”
It was impossible to decline his proposal. Within minutes I was back on the air and believe it or not did a POTA park-to-park (PTP) QSO with N5PHT!
I thought I had died and gone to Heaven. Never before had I done a PTP as we call in in the world of POTA.
Once I collected myself, I showed Tip how to work my mini Pico Paddles. He was overjoyed at being able to transmit his name while I manned the controls of the KX3.
Tip and his dad had other things to do, I needed a cup of coffee and wanted to get back to town to scream to the POTA Facebook group a well deserved Thank You! I felt they were probably just as excited as I was because not only do I think I was the first person to activate this difficult park, but I also could well be the last.
As I was getting back in my rental car, I thought about what had just happened.
I kept driving down that gravel road because my gut told me to. Something inside me said to not give up. I’ve rarely quit things in the past because the sign over my high school football dressing room said:
Quitters never win. Winners never quit.
If you decide to do a POTA, SOTA or similar activation and you think it won’t work out, think again. Don’t give up.
This afternoon I successfully activated Point Cabrillo Light Station while participating in the Parks on the Air (POTA) program. The official designator for this state park is KFF-3536. It was a great way to end the day after failing to activate Humboldt Redwoods State Park earlier in the morning.
I was quite happy after getting more than the required QSOs in my notepad! Victory! Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
Point Cabrillo is an historic wood-framed Victorian-style lighthouse just north of Mendocino, CA. The air was filled with light fog which was the perfect way to view a lighthouse in my opinion. This type of weather is when sailors depend on the intense rotating beam of light.
That’s a real light with the special lenses, not some electronic beacon. Sadly the Coast Guard will not allow the general public up the steep ladder to see the rotating light. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
I set up at a picnic table near the park headquarters which is about a mile east of the lighthouse. I was in such a rush to get on the air that it took four attempts to launch my water bottle up and over a specific branch in some very tall trees next to the table.
The branch I wanted to capture was out of the frame. It required a precise throw to snag it. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
It didn’t take long to get set up and when I spun the dial on my Elecraft KX3 I knew the activation was going to be challenging. The band was as quiet as patrons reading books at the local library.
I’m ready to pluck invisible waves out of the air. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
Since it was late in the day, 3:47 pm PT, when I turned on the radio, I decided to immediately go to 20 meters. This is usually a dependable band, but today it was anemic.
The activation only happened by gathering what I could on 20 meters and then I switched to 30 meters. I only did CW and not single side band (SSB). With propagation as bad as it is, it’s nearly impossible to do SSB with a low-powered setup.
Here’s my log:
Once again the POTA Facebook group came to my rescue. You need ten contacts to successfully activate a park. I got eleven.
I decided to pack up once I knew I had the needed contacts as I wanted to go see the lighthouse. I decided to walk the mile down to the coastline as the past week I’ve gotten very little exercise. It was well worth the walk.
Isn’t this a gorgeous building? Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
These rocks are just below the lighthouse. The were created millions of years ago as molten rock welled up on the ocean floor. Continental drift has brought them 3000 miles to the west coast of the North American plate. Yeah, I majored in geology in college. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
The roof shingles are wood but they’ve been painted the bright fire-engine red. My guess is this is how it’s been for over 100 years! Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
On August 7, 2017 I found myself driving through Eureka, CA on my way to the San Francisco Bay area. Two short business meetings spaced out over thirteen days provided me with about eight days to travel by car from Portland, OR to Google’s San Francisco offices. I had never been to Oregon nor Northern California and brought my outdoor radio equipment to have some fun.
It was an overcast breezy and chilly day with the temperature in the lower 60s F. My goal was to try to be the first to activate Fort Humboldt state park as part of the Parks on the Air (POTA) program. The official designator for POTA for this state park is KFF-3434.
CLICK the sign to discover the history of this bluff up above the mighty Pacific Ocean. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
This state park was all but deserted when I arrived. I spied some picnic tables under trees that were on the edge of a large open field. Being an ask-for-forgiveness type of guy, I headed for the farthest picnic table that was pretty much out of sight of the park employees.
You can’t see the tree behind and to the left of me where my end-fed antenna was hanging. It performed well today! Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
I’ve been doing outdoor radio for enough years to know to avoid the water-bottle-eating thick evergreen trees that swallow my water bottle I use to get my halyard up into tree branches. Fortunately there was a leafless deciduous tree about 30 feet from the picnic table I wanted to use. It took me three throws to get the perfect branch so my 29-foot wire would hang vertically in the tree.
I had sent a message to the Facebook POTA group that I was there and about to get on the air. I made a mistake citing the UTC time because I thought I was still in New Hampshire. A few chasers thought they had missed me as the time I posted was three hours past!
CLICK the image to see what’s going on at POTA! Copyright 2017 Facebook, Inc.
I decided to do CW at first as that’s my passion with outdoor radio. I fired up my Elecraft KX3 powered by my trusty BioennoPower power pack. My antenna is just a simple 29-foot wire with a 9:1 unun at the end to get the impedance down to a level the internal tuner in the KX3 can match. I was able to get a 1:1 match on 20 meters with no problems.
The band conditions have been so wretched all summer, that the only reason I got my minimum 10 contacts was because of the faithful followers who monitor the POTA group on Facebook. Twenty meters was short today and none of my friends on the east coast could hear my signal.
I know I was spotted by several operators and even with that I was only able to gather ten QSOs. Three of those ten were with W6LEN but on different bands. Thanks Jess Guaderrama for making this activation possible! Here’s my log:
As you can see, I just made it. Ten contacts are required for a successful activation. Nothing like cutting it close.
I had been outdoors in the chilly breeze in shorts and sandals for over ninety minutes. I was starting to think about getting a hot cup of coffee. That meant it was time to pack up.
But before I left the park, I wandered over to look at some of the historic pieces of machinery that are housed here. Eureka, CA was the epicenter of the logging industry for the ancient California redwood trees from 1850 up to the 1990s.
Check out some of the amazing pieces of machinery in this collection. Mother Nature is slowly reclaiming them. Perhaps they should be brought inside at some point like the two working tiny steam locomotives they have here at this magic park.
This is a smaller steam donkey that was used to drag giant logs from the forest. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
The sign on this machine said it was a Shingle Mill. I suppose it made redwood shingles use to cover the sides of buildings like my friend Russell Waters home in Montrose, CA. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
DUH! Why not use logs as rails in the forest? Very clever!!! Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
The sign said this was the largest steam donkey ever made. It was ginormous as you can see by the size of the pickup truck in the lower right corner. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter