Inspiring Kaylee to Learn Morse Code

Inspiring Kaylee to Learn Morse Code

I’m a very lucky person. Several years ago I was asked to be a reenactor at the Ashland, New Hampshire railroad station. It’s now a museum and each summer and fall other reenactors and myself treat visitors to a trip in a time machine.

ashland nh railroad station museum

This is the Ashland NH railroad station museum as of September, 2022. It was a grand autumn afternoon.

I’m the telegrapher at the station replete with sleeve socks, black paisley vest, electric-blue paisley bow tie, and period visor. I’ve been told my mustache adds a delightful finishing touch to the illusion.

You can’t believe how humbled I am to sit at the same desk where real railroad telegraphers listened to the telegraph sounder and then transmitted replies for nearly 100 years.

The Ashland station opened in 1849 and professional telegraph operators kept the trains running safely by sending and receiving messages to/from other stations up and down the railroad tracks.

ashland nh railroad station historic marker sign

You can get a fantastic book right here about the history of the Boston, Concord & Montreal RR that describes the full history. You’ll also discover the fierce competition between small railroads in New Hampshire in the early days of railroads. Just like today many businessmen, if not all, made shady deals with politicians to get charters to start their railroads.

Stopping in Ashland

The scenic railroad that operates on the historic Boston, Concord & Montreal Railroad line does weekend fall foliage five-hour trips from late September until Columbus Day in October. The round trip originates out of the Meredith, NH station south of Ashland, NH.

The train departs from the Meredith station about 10:30 AM heading north towards Plymouth. It passes the Ashland station but doesn’t stop. Once the train arrives in Plymouth, the passengers exit the train and eat a relaxing buffet lunch inside a cozy restaurant.

On the return trip to Meredith, the train makes its stop at the Ashland station. Passengers are encouraged to get off the train to chat with the women in their stunning huge hoop dresses and bonnets as well as men and children dressed in period clothing. They also wander inside the restored train station to view all of the fascinating railroad memorabilia.

reenactors at ashland nh railroad station

Jim Cluett, W1PID, is on the left. He’s the train conductor for the scenic train. Next to Jim is Winnifred in the white dress, John in the straw hat and crimson vest, and Sue in her stunning red dress and goldenrod wool coat.

assorted railroad lanterns ashland rr station

This is just a small part of the historic memorabilia collection inside the station.

While inside the station, they’re also treated to me sending Morse code just like the telegraphers of old. If the chatter from the passengers isn’t too loud, my Morse drifts out the open station door to the platform.

On Sunday September 25, 2022, I was all dressed up waiting for the train to glide into the Ashland station on the well-worn iron rails. The train’s conductor provides a short twenty-minute stop in Ashland just after 2 PM.  Ashland is about halfway between Plymouth and Meredith, NH.

tim carter telegrapher ashland railroad station

Here I am in the fall of 2021 with my new black paisley vest. The sleeve socks and visor complete the costume.

Kaylee and her Mom

Last Sunday was unusual as I felt not many passengers got off the train to look around. When they walk into the station, the telegrapher’s office is immediately to the right and most people are polite and just pop their heads in the open door to see the source of the dihs and dahs resonating throughout the historic building.

ashland nh railroad station telegrapher's office

The door into the telegrapher’s office is open on the right side of this photo. You can see into the office looking through the service window on the clipped corner.

I’m always looking out the window to try to spy any children who might be on the trip. While doing a ham radio demonstration about six years ago at a STEM school event with my Morse mentor Jim Cluett, W1PID, we discovered quite by accident that kids delight in hearing their name sent in Morse code.

“Hi! What’s your name?” Standing at the doorway with her eyes nearly as big as her oversized eyeglasses was a young girl with long brunette hair. The rhythm of me sending Morse must have captivated her like a siren’s song does a seafarer.

She was wearing a warm hoodie sweatshirt as autumn was in the air. My guess is this young lady (YL) was no more than ten years old. Standing next to her was her mom.

“It’s Kaylee.”

“Such a beautiful name! Would you like to hear what it sounds like in Morse code? Help me spell it so I get it right.”

“Sure! K A Y L E E, it’s got two e’s.” She said with a smile as big as the throbbing locomotive idling just down the tracks.

As often happens, Kaylee was drawn into the station by the sound of the Morse code like I’m pulled into my kitchen by the intoxicating aroma of my wife’s delicious fresh vegetable soup.

Kaylee’s eyes were laser focused on my right hand as I pounded brass with my Kent straight key. She reminded me of what our house cats look like when they’ve cornered a mouse that’s trying to set up home before a long New Hampshire winter.

ashland nh railroad station museum kent straight key

My Kent straight key is in the bottom of the photo. A real key used by the telegraphers sitting at this exact desk is near the window.

Going Slow

Some adults love to hear their names in Morse too. Just before sending each letter, I tell them what I’m about to send so they can hear how unique each letter sounds. I then send it in real time as if I was pushing a telegram update to a friend or relative at a distant station through the miles of copper wire that used to hang beside the tracks.

Here’s a re-creation of what I said to Kaylee:

As soon as I stopped sending it, her face reminded me of my own children on Christmas morning. The entire station was ablaze with Kaylee’s happiness. Her mom was also glowing like a pile of coal in a steam locomotive’s firebox.

“Oh my gosh, that was so cool! Thanks for doing that.” Kaylee started asking questions faster than water shoots from a firehose. I answered each one and shared that in less than one month she could easily memorize the entire alphabet.

“Kaylee, how about you try to send a few letters?” 

“Can I?”

“Why of course!”

I then had her send a K and an A as those are both pretty simple letters in Morse code. She wanted to keep pressing down on the straight key as if it were a doorbell, so I had to show her how to hold the straight-key knob with her two fingers and thumb.

Moments later the train conductor, my Morse code mentor Jim, called, “All aboard!” He was out on the platform and it was time for the train to depart back to Meredith.

Kaylee’s mom asked for a photo of Kaylee and me, we said our goodbyes, and they both disappeared out the door.

I Want to Send Your Name

Moments later, Kaylee was back in the telegrapher’s office.

“I want to send your name! Can you show me how?”

You can imagine my surprise to see her. I glanced up and saw Jim standing just outside the office door with a huge smile on his face. He wasn’t going to release the train until the magic happened.

In case you don’t know it, a train engineer can’t move a train until such time as the conductor gives the order. Jim’s grin telegraphed to me that I might have just created the next new young ham radio operator.

“Okay, my name is really easy. It’s T I M. It’s just one dash or dah, two dots or dihs, and two dashes or dahs. Close your eyes and listen closely. Remember, Morse is auditory. You learn Morse the same way your mom taught you to talk. You just hear the distinct sounds.”

I looked at her face to make sure her eyes were closed tight and said, “I’m going to send my name slowly three times. Focus on the spacing and concentrate on each letter.”

Kaylee did exactly as I had requested. It was now her turn. She grasped the Kent key knob just right and started pounding her first bits of brass.

The first time she tried, it was a little sloppy. But the second time was perfect.

“Great job, Kaylee! That was excellent! You’re going to have a great fist!”

Kaylee’s face said it all and she rushed out the door past Jim hopping up onto the train. I was beaming myself as I was sure a new CW operator had just been born.

I walked out to the platform to wave to her as the train chugged away and she leaned out an open window slapping my hand with a high five.

The Highlight of the Trip

The next day Jim called me with news.

“As I was walking down the aisle of the train the little girl’s mother stopped me. She told me that your demonstration of Morse was the highlight of the entire weekend trip. In fact, while they were still on the train, Kaylee’s mom went to Amazon and purchased an inexpensive Morse oscillator so Kaylee can start to practice.”

I don’t know that it gets any better than this. It’s possible that moment in time in the Ashland railroad station may be tattooed in four minds for the rest of our lives.

It’s my hope that I hear from Kaylee or her mom one day. I did give her mom one of my business cards so we’ll see what happens.

Spending that time with Kaylee was magical for me too. I came home so excited about it I shared the entire story with my wife Kathy. Being a mom, she got it right away. Kathy’s got no interest in Morse but she’s all about making kids happy.

Cannon Mountain POTA

mt lafayette franconia notch nh

Mt. Lafayette is the tallest peak across from Cannon Mountain. We had to travel through the thick undercast to get up to sunny skies.

Cannon Mountain POTA – Three in One

On the first day of autumn 2022, September 21, I had the pleasure to go to the top of Cannon Mountain with Frank Towle, WF1T. Frank and I are fairly active in Parks on the Air (POTA) and we wanted to be the first operators to activate the 2nd Presidential State Forest here in New Hampshire.

It turns out that three different POTA entities overlap at the top of Cannon Mountain:

  • K-4958 2nd Presidential State Forest
  • K-2653 Franconia Notch State Park
  • K-4512 White Mountains National Forest

Lots of Clouds

As we approached Cannon Mountain from the south on I-93, we could see that the top half of the mountain was shrouded with thick clouds. The forecast was for sunny skies but I never thought it would happen based on the dreary conditions as we parked in a nearly empty lot below the tram building.

The cannon mountain Tram

Most mountains in New Hampshire you need to climb up using your footmobile. Cannon Is one of a handful of mountains in the White Mountains that you can get to the top in just minutes. The tram whisks you up from the base of Franconia Notch to the top in just eight minutes traveling at 12 feet per second. Within minutes of riding up, visibility dropped to ten feet.

cannon mountain tram

We’re on our way to the top and below the clouds. Within a minute, that changed as we dove into the thick clouds.

cannon mountain tram

The tram was nearly empty. It was just these three tourists, Frank, the tram operator, and me. It was low visibility as you can see.

Coffee and Clouds

Once we got off the tram at 11:30 AM, I immediately stepped out onto the deck at the northwest corner of the large tram building. It’s adjacent to the small cafeteria and is a wonderful place to enjoy a meal looking out to the Great North Woods. I wanted to see if the picnic tables were dry. Remarkably, they had no dew on them allowing us to sit on dry seats and keep our expensive equipment out of the water.

Frank suggested we get a cup of coffee to offset the little bit of chill. The temperature was probably hovering around 48 F when we got off the tram. I didn’t think to check, but the tram operator said it was almost always 12 degrees cooler up top than down at the parking lot.

Just before noon I could see tiny patches of blue sky out the cafeteria windows. The sun was gobbling up the clouds. Hooray!

cannon mountain tram thermometer

It was 54 F as we were about to load to go back down. We had been up on the mountain for three hours so you know it was cooler at 11:30 AM when we arrived.

Get Frank on the Air

Frank and I exited the cafeteria out onto the deck and started to set up. Just the day before he and I had tested my Elecraft KX3 ensuring it could interface with Frank’s laptop to do digital radio. I had to buy a few special cables to make the magic happen.

Within minutes we had deployed my 14-foot collapsing fiberglass fishing pole that would hold up the center of a 29-foot thin wire creating an inverted V antenna. I connected my 9:1 unun to reduce the impedance of the wire allowing the KX3’s tuner to give us a 1:1 match with ease. I jammed the fishing pole in between the deck railing balusters to keep the pole upright. A BioennoPower 6 Ah LiFePh battery powered the KX3.

cannon mountain pota antenna

This was our wretched antenna. It worked. The magenta arrow points to the collapsable fiberglass fishing pole. The yellow lines indicate the thin 29-foot wire that’s almost impossible to see in real life and virtually impossible to see in a photo this resolution. The panfish pole did a great job of holding up the wire to create the inverted V.

frank towle WF1T

Here’s Frank starting to fill up his log with digital contacts. He loves doing POTA and even has a special POTA hat! You can see by 12:15 PM the sun was eating up the clouds faster than I could gobble down some of the spicy chili served up in the cafeteria. Check out the photo below of the delicious chili.

W3ATB CW Setup

Once Frank was all set up, it was time for me to hike a short distance to try to do CW. Jim Cluett, W1PID, and I had great luck in the past sitting on granite alongside a trail that heads down to Franconia Notch. I tried to locate it, but had no luck.

I found a spur trail that had stunted 5-foot-tall evergreen trees along each side. All I could do was lay another 29-foot wire along the tips of the branches hoping for the best. I had my KX2 with me so I could operate at the same time as Frank.

cannon mountain wire antenna

I took this photo just before winding up my antenna. I was very frustrated. Before the adventure I was sure I’d have no trouble making contacts because the 2nd Presidential State Forest had never been activated. While the sun was providing fantastic infrared rays to create sky so blue it hurt your eyes to look at it, it wasn’t putting out enough energy to tickle the atmosphere so radio signals would work well.

I was able to make four contacts in about 30 minutes, then I decided to go back to Frank’s table to try to take advantage of the inverted V antenna.

Just Eleven Contacts!

I packed up my gear and headed back to see how Frank was doing. I was convinced that by the time I got back he’d have 20 or 30 digital contacts. “So how many do you have?”

“Seven,” Frank uttered.

“WHAT? No way! I thought you’d have at least twenty by now.” I couldn’t believe he had only seven contacts in 45 minutes.

“Well, I was talking with some interested tourists about the radio setup so I may have missed a few contacts.”

I decided I’d eat lunch while he made his required ten contacts, then I’d plug in my micro Palm paddles to try to get the ten contacts I had to have. I had decided I wasn’t leaving the mountain until I activated it!

cannon mountain chili and cookie

Doing CW Morse code requires energy. The spicy chili was excellent. I decided to eat waiting for Frank to get his minimum ten contacts to activate the three POTA entities. Once I finished eating, it was time for me to get my ten contacts.

Frank ended up with about fourteen contacts and once I got on the air after enjoying the delicious spicy chili, I made eleven total contacts.

It was now about 2:15 PM so we decided to pack up and head back down. Although Frank and I were disappointed we didn’t make more contacts, we were both quite happy at how the day turned out. If you’ve never taken the tram to the top of Cannon Mountain, it’s something you should consider. Rumor has it there’s a stash of gold coins up along the rim trail.

cannon mountain tram

Here’s the tram car arriving that would take us back down to the parking lot. We had a great time and the clouds had almost all disappeared.

mt lafayette nh

You’re looking at Mt. Lafayette from inside the tram car. It would have been an ideal day to hoof it up that mountain. Soon it will be snow covered.

mt lafayette rock slide

The tram operator pointed out a rock slide that had happened a few days before. It was cloudy and foggy just like today and they heard the avalanche of rocks but didn’t see the aftermath until the clouds had disappeared. Tons and tons of boulders came down. Eventually they’ll end up in the Atlantic Ocean. Geologists like me call this mass wasting.

Star Island Isle of Shoals Mini DXpedition

star island isle of shoals

See that gazebo to the right of the hotel? That’s where we set up to snare radio signals out of the air like lobstermen grab tasty crustaceans from the deep blue sea around Star Island at the Isle of Shoals.

It all started four or five years ago when my mentor Jim Cluett, W1PID, suggested we take a day trip out to the Isle of Shoals off the seacoast of Rye, New Hampshire. The plan was to setup and do radio using the saltwater and clear view of the horizon to our advantage.

I’m always up for an adventure but for some reason we kept putting off the trip. Then the I-want-a-redo years of 2020 and 2021 threw a wet blanket on the idea.

But that all changed on the evening of August 28, 2022 when Jim, the master of pith, sent me this communiqué:

email from Jim Cluett W1PID to W3ATB

I saw this short message the following morning and reacted to it like you’d turn your head to a snapping twig while you were alone in a deep forest.

It’s happening! We’re going on the adventure!

Booking the Boat

I responded to Jim via email sharing that Friday September 2nd, 2022 not only was the best day for me, but the weather forecast was beyond superb. What’s more, the regular ferry schedule to and from the island ends after Labor Day which was now a week away. It was fish-or-cut-bait time.

Jim finally said Friday was fine. His lovely wife Judy recommended we charter the trip out of Rye Harbor in New Hampshire on the Uncle Oscar. It was sage advice as Judy is an expert about everything to do in and around Rye.

uncle oscar boat

This is the Uncle Oscar boat operated by Granite State Whale Watch that would take us to Star Island.

I went online, bought two of the last ten tickets available, and sent the digital receipt to Jim. A day later we met in person to discuss who was bringing what equipment. The challenge was daunting because:

  • we had less than an hour on the island to set up, operate, and pack up
  • we had only a satellite photo to guide us as to where to set up
  • we couldn’t fail – getting skunked was not on the table

Jim has operated for decades outdoors. One day a few years ago in a rare instance of bloviating, he said to me, “When you operate outdoors you have everything stacked against you. The weather, a poor antenna most of the time, the possibility of forgetting a key piece of equipment, etc. It could be five times harder to make a contact outdoors than from the comfort of your indoor shack.” I was to discover over the past years honing my outdoor radio skills that Jim was absolutely correct.

Watch this video of our adventure to and from Star Island!

isle of shoals nh map

Uncle Oscar

It was decided that I would drive to Rye Harbor for the 11:00 AM departure time. I love to drive so that wasn’t an issue. We arrived at the harbor around 10:20 AM. Soon the wharf was crowded with other passengers, some of which were departing on a whale-watching excursion at the same time as we’d leave for Star Island. The weather was unbelievable. The temperature was kissing up against 70 F and there was no wind. The sea was almost a sheet of glass.

jim cluett W1PID and tim carter w3atb

Jim was gazing out the side of the Uncle Oscar. You can see how happy I was to be on the boat heading to Star Island!

The trip out to Star Island was about 45 minutes. Jim’s wife made wonderful no-meat sandwiches us and we transferred them to our bellies waiting for the Uncle Oscar to leave the harbor. As you’ll soon see, I didn’t need to eat. I store about three weeks worth of food under the bottom half of my t-shirt at all times.

wrapped vegetarian sandwich

Judy labeled the sandwiches because it was very important mine did NOT have any nasty bitter green peppers.

vegetarian sandwich no green peppers

Yummy! Thanks Judy!

jim cluett and tim carter

Jim doesn’t like to splatter people with food as he eats. A protective shield made from paper towels is quite effective. The paper towels provide a secondary benefit of privacy to Jim’s absolutely-no-photos-of-me policy.

A different ferry company that hales out of Portsmouth, NH was a bit tardy leaving the dock at Star Island so we had to dawdle a bit cruising slowly by the island just to the northwest of Star Island. There’s only enough room at the Star Island dock for one large boat such as the Uncle Oscar.

Tick Tick Tick…

Jim and I were itching to get off and as we walked up the aluminum gangplank to the concrete wharf we were contemplating where to set up. There was no time to waste.

star island cemetery

Jim and I passed this old cemetery on our way to the gazebo. I can’t believe you could bury people here with the thin soil cover over the solid granite bedrock.

“Hey Jim, how about that gazebo?” I could see people in it and that would be problematic. People tend to ask lots of questions when they see antennas and hear Morse code chattering from the radio. Today was not the day to give a clinic about outdoor radio and Morse code. No way no how. We had work to do.

For whatever reason, Jim forgot to wear a shirt that would help keep the curious at bay. It says, Get Away From Me. He’s quite possibly the most polite person I’ve ever met.

“There are too many people up there,” Jim said as he studied the 2-ton-capacity crane mast at the end of the wharf. It took us less than 20 seconds to eliminate operating from the nasty wharf. We started to walk to the gazebo as if drawn by a powerful invisible magnet. Time was of the essence.

The Gazebo

Jim walked around the gazebo to discover a marvelous teak bench overlooking the ocean. What’s more, it was about 25 feet away from the gazebo. That short distance and our reluctance to give any direct eye contact with those eating their lunches in the gazebo were enough to minimize/eliminate any contact with strangers.

“Listen. We can attach the wire antenna to the corner of the gazebo and then secure it to the bench,” proclaimed Jim. He wasted no time deploying his Packtenna as I got out my Elecraft KX3, my Begali Adventure Key, and a Bioenno Power 4.5 Ah battery. It took just minutes to have all of this connected and the radio turned on.

packtenna amatuer radio antenna

This is the Packtenna antenna.  Electronics are under the stretched rubber. These magic components reduce the resistance in the 29-foot wire. Without them you’d burn up the transistors in the radio. You store the antenna wire on the little X frame. It performed well.

In less than a minute we heard a station on the air. It was go time. We had to be back on the Uncle Oscar in less than an hour.

Switching Back and Forth

I made the first contact. It was with WX1S. We were on 20 meters and the band conditions were poor. That said, his signal to me was strong and he gave me the best possible signal report back, a 599. Jim said to give him a 579 as his signal could have been a touch stronger.

tim carter w3atb

I’ve got my head tilted to better hear the Morse code from the radio. Years of operating circular saws on job sites without hearing protection have played havoc with my hearing. You can see the extra food I brought with me in case I got marooned on Star Island.

jim cluett w1pid on star island

Here’s Jim operating getting his first radio contact.

I surrendered the radio to Jim so he could log his first contact. As he was searching for a new operator, a middle-aged man with an official dark-blue Star Island hotel parka walked towards us. In my mind I thought, “Uh oh. The party’s over. He’s going to ask us politely to take down our radio antenna and pack up.”

The visitor turned out to be the CEO of Star Island! He had sauntered out to take a photo of the bench that Jim and I were using as our outdoor radio shack. He was not at all upset and was curious as to what was going on.

While I was chatting with the CEO, Jim made contact with AB9CA. We avoided the skunk, but we both still had a healthy appetite for more contacts.

VE2PID

Moments after the CEO left, Jim made contact with an old friend Pierre, V32PID. How crazy was that to work a Canadian operator who lives in Quebec with the same suffix as Jim’s call sign, W1PID? It turns out Pierre was operating a remote radio connected to the Internet in Georgia of all places.

Yes, you read that right. Rather than using his own radio at his home, Pierre was using someone else’s radio. You can only accomplish this if you have a valid FCC license.

If you just want to listen to amateur radio transmissions, there’s a deep rabbit hole you can jump into. Pierre could have also listened for our signal on some other radio via the Internet in case that radio station was hearing Jim and I better than Pierre’s own antenna in Quebec. You don’t have to have an FCC license to listen to amateur radio signals.

Once Jim finished saying goodbye to Pierre, I immediately jumped in to get him in my log book. Pierre was surprised to discover Jim and I were together on Star Island.

After I completed my short conversation, we decided it was probably best to break down. We were to be back on board the Uncle Oscar in less than 25 minutes. It made no sense trying to rush to get back on the boat, so we basked in the sunlight and success of making radio contacts from Star Island. It was indeed a highlight of my nine years of operating outdoors.

One Last APRS Contact

Jim also brought a small handheld transceiver that’s equipped with GPS. He wanted to see if he could send and receive a signal to an onshore radio station connected to the Internet. Within seconds he was successful. Jim delights at everything about amateur radio, including APRS beacons.

jim cluett w1pid aprs

Here’s Jim making his APRS contact.

screenshot of aprs contact on star island

Within a minute of Jim making contact with the radio station, I looked up on aprs.fi to see validation the QSO happened. You can see Jim’s call sign on the island!

After making contact with the radio station, we walked back to the dock. We were one of the first to board. Soon everyone was back on the Uncle Oscar and it was time to depart. Another tour boat from Portsmouth harbor was on its way to take our place.

Jim and I had a fantastic time. I highly recommend for you to go out to Star Island, even if you’re not an amateur radio operator. You can even stay overnight if you want. Rest assured that next summer, the Good Lord willing, I’ll make another trip out to the Isle of Shoals.