“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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Just Do It.