Parks On The Air

Since getting the new radio, I’ve been participating in a program on the air called Parks On The Air. If you’re familiar with Ham Radio, it will probably make sense to you. If not, it might seems a little strange, but it’s a lot of fun and it’s given me a new outlet for my Ham Radio activity.

To put it simply, Parks On The Air, which is referred to by the acronym POTA, is a program where Hams go to certain parks and public locations and set up a radio station. Once there they talk to other Ham radio operators, with the goal being to talk to as many as possible and let the Hams talk to as many parks as possible.

The POTA program is an outgrowth of the National Parks On The Air program which was held for one year to commemorate the Centennial of the US National Parks system.

Each park, is given a number which identifies it in the program. Valid parks are state and national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, forests, and the like. Local, city, county, and town parks are not eligible for the program. Many countries are included in the program and each has a list of designated parks.

There are two groups of Hams in POTA, Activators, those who travel to a park and set up a station, and Hunters, the rest of the Hams who try to make contact with the ones in the parks. There is a lot of overlap between those groups, but to understand the awards for participating in the program, you need to understand the distinction between them.

Activators keep a log of every contact the make while in a park. For an Activation to be considered successful, a minimum of 10 contacts must be made and submitted. The logs go in to the POTA group where volunteers enter them into their database. All parks are kept track of, and Hunters are given credit for the contacts they made. That in turn is used to give a number of awards to both Activators and Hunters.

Certificate awarded for working 10 parks

There are awards for all levels of achievement and many ways to collect them. But just getting certificates isn’t the point. That would get boring pretty fast. The real fun is in activating a park. Despite it being the middle of winter, I’ve gotten out three times to set up my station in a “park” and operate from there. It’s really not hard.

There are some rules, of course. The park must be open. You must be within the boundaries of the “park,” not on private land. You must obey any rules of the park, which vary quite a bit. Some are wildlife refuges or forest preserves with their own special purpose and rules that you must comply with. But most parks, because they are public land also invite and encourage public use within those limits. Mostly, they are pretty accommodating to Ham Radio.

My fiberglass pole supporting a wire antenna. Bungee cords lash it to a bollard.

So far, I have been able to set up inconspicuously in parking areas and sit in my truck to operate. When nicer weather comes along, a picnic bench will be more comfortable. I have operated from three wildlife refuges and from a trailhead on the Erie Canalway Trail.

Shack in vehicle
Operating from the passenger seat of my truck to keep warm.

There are a dozen or so designated parks within a short drive from me. As the weather improves, I hope to get out to activate more of them. It’s a blast! It’s like Field day, but in small, easy chunks. You can do it however you like. You can drive to a lot in a park. or you can hike deep into it. It’s perfect for QRP operation and is viable for CW (Morse code) Voice, and Data modes. It’s good for HF, VHF and UHF bands. Or, you can set up in a shelter and operate high power. Antennas can be as simple as a portable compact vertical, or a wire dipole, or a high mast with an elaborate antenna, as long as you don’t violate park rules and can manage it yourself. Simple is often the best.

Yellow dots are POTA eligible locations. The dot typically indicates an office or main entrance. The actual territory covered can be large. The dot for the Erie Canalway National Corridor, which runs right through this map is out past Syracuse, but can be activated here. A little research on boundaries is needed.


So, this post is getting long. Where am I going with it? I hope to share a little of what goes into this activity and what about it appeals to me. Isolation due to COVID-19 has limited some of the things we used to look forward to, but with this I can still get outdoors, get some fresh air, and play around with radios. It has me back experimenting with some portable antennas that I’ve had on the back burner for quite a while. It’s a good way to promote our various parks, nature preserves, forests and wildlands, and do it in a low-impact, nature friendly way. It will only be more fun as the warm weather approaches.

A Tale of two QCXs

As you may know, I am a Ham Radio operator and that, among other aspects of the hobby, of which there are many, I do two things. I operate QRP (low-power) operation, mostly CW (Morse code) and I like to build electronic kits.

QCX twins

Ugly on the left. Beauty on the right.

Sometimes those things cross over.

A while ago, probably more than a year, I became aware of a neat little QRP radio kit called the QCX. It was offered for sale by a German Ham, living in Turkey, for only $50. It was a single-band, 5 watt CW radio that was pocket-sized. Slightly bigger than a pack of Canadian cigarettes.

There have been many small, inexpensive QRP radios before. I have a few. But this one was built around the little microprocessor chip found in the Arduino boards. It had a display, and the chip allowed it to do a lot of neat things that usually took place in outboard boards. For $50 buck, I had to try one.

So I did and I wrote about it before, so I won’t get into it too much. Once it was done, it needed to be put into an enclosure. So I decided to fit it into one. I got an extruded aluminum box that seemed to be the right size to do justice to the small size of the radio and I started doing what needed to make it fit inside.

Let me tell you, it might be aluminum, but extruded aluminum is tough. Tough to work on. drilling holes wasn’t too bad, but cutting big openings for the display was hard. Then there was the challenge of making the controls work. The push buttons were tiny and needed some kind of extension to reach out of the case. The two knobs – one encoder and one potentiometer, were at different lengths as well. I had to fabricate extensions for all those with my limited machine shop. (Hand tools.)

When it was done, and working, it was crude, but did the job. I built it for 40 meters. Naturally, I wanted another, so I bought on and built it for 20 meters. This time though, I bought the matching case from another company that made them for Hans.

It took a while to arrive, but came after I had completed building the second kit. It looked fantastic. I was happy that I spent the extra money rather than struggle with making my own case.

Fast forward a year. Hans, being ever busy and industrious, improved his radio and replaced the QCX with a new model called the QCX+. He also came out with a even more compact version called the QCX-mini. The plus is bigger and easier to build. The mini is smaller, comes with many surface mount components pre-installed and to make it smaller, he came up with a scheme of nesting circuit boards that increased the density while still being easy to build.

The writing on the wall, though, was the the company that sold the cases probably would not sell them forever. I decided to order one and put my original kit in a proper case to match the second one.

I ordered it in November. Then COVID hit and disrupted the world’s shipping. The first one was slow to arrive, but not unreasonably so. I patiently waited for it, but I began to fear it had gotten lost. They were shipped without tracking to save cost, so there was no way to tell. I emailed the maker, Markus, but received no reply. I imagine he got so many inquiries that he stopped responding.

So, I gave up on it. I actually went ahead and ordered two of the QCX-minis with matching cases and planned to build one of them to replace the 40 meter QCX. But they won’t be available for a while.

Then, out of the blue, the case arrived today. Hallelujah! Heere’s some photos of the transformation from my ugly box to a beautiful QCX that matches my 20 meter version.

Out of the old case. Seeing if it fits the new one.

Front. Board. Rear. Almost ready.

All done! I decided to keep the oversized knob I added. Maybe I’ll get one for the 20m version.

Almost twins!

A new Radio for my shack

Well, I’ve been getting back into Ham Radio lately. With the pandemic stifling most things that are fun, I figured it would be a good activity for being social distanced. Little did I know which way it would go.

I had a good radio, my main radio, which served me well for over 20 years. I used it in many contests to make thousands of contacts over the years. I didn’t scrimp on it, I spent until it hurt, which at that time was a lot of money. I put all the accessories into it. Over the years, it needed some maintenance. It had a battery that died every ten years or so, and when it turned on and said “TILT” this time, I assumed it was time for a new battery.

I ordered a new battery, a li-ion coin cell. The original was the type that solders directly onto a circuit board. It’s hard to find the exact right one of those, but I ordered a holder as well. I figured I’d put the holder in once and from then on, changing the battery would be a snap.

But I put it all in and it did not fix the problem. I looked into the feasibility of sending it out for repair. I had shipped it to a fellow in Texas once before for work. he was about the only Kenwood certified repairman left. I looked him up and his web site said he had retired. But it referred me to a new service place, up in Minnesota, I believe. They did indeed still service my radio. For only $350. Shipping would be about $50 each way. I looked at the prices of used models of the radio, and they were barely getting $500.

I decided that I have had my money’s worth out of the old radio, the Kenwood TS-850SAT, and it was time to replace it with something new. But I didn’t want to spend the kind of money it would take to replace it with an updated equivalent. That would have taken at least $2-3000.

Kenwood TS-850SAT

Kenwood TS-850SAT

Icom IC-7300

Icom IC-7300

Instead, I lowered my sights a bit and found the Icom IC-7300. it was going for $1100 with a $100 rebate. It’s a modern style radio, a bit smaller th an the old one, but very capable. Many of the extras I had to add to the old radio came built in on it. How do they do that at such a low price? Well, technology. It’s a radio based on DSP – Digital Signal Processing. Most of the work that used to be done by stages of mixers and filters and amplification, is now done by microprocessors.

The 7300 has been on the market for at least 5 years, but I hadn’t been paying attention to it. It still looks like a traditional radio, but with a fancy touch screen that gives you all kinds of menus for settings and different ways to display what it is doing. It also interfaces with your computer, not through a serial port, like the old one did (with a special adapter) but through a USB cable. The computer sees a virtual serial port to control the radio’s frequency and other settings, just like the old radio, but it also acts like a sound card so that the computer has access to sound coming to and from the radio. This greatly simplifies using data modes.

So, I got the new radio and have been having a great time making it work and setting it up. One thing I found, that I already knew, but didn’t matter with a radio that didn’t work, was my antennas have deteriorated to the point of being almost useless. The only one that is even partially useful is my 40 meter vertical and there is something wrong with it, but I can still make some contacts on it. In fact, I’ve been using it on most bands with the tuner built into the radio.

My triband yagi, A Cushcraft A3S, had been out of commission for years. The center, driven element fell off. The U-bolt broke and the whole element came down. I can’t get up there to do anything, so that’s not going to change.

My 80 meter dipole, a high wire antenna that runs from a tree in front of my house to a tree at the back fence, just doesn’t work. All I hear on it is noise. I can see that one end was caught up in some branches and has unravelled, but not fallen down. But there must be something more wrong than that. Maybe the coaxial cable is broken, maybe the balun at the center is bad. It’s held up by ropes that go through pulleys, but the back one won’t let it down because it’s caught up in the tree branches. I’ll have to get up on my kitchen roof and pull the center down by the coax to free it up. But I’m not going to do that until spring.

The 40 meter vertical, I suspect has a bad coax, but I’m not yet 100% sure of that. It’s buried in the ground, and even though it is direct burial cable, that’s only good for so many years. I ran a piece of RG-8X to replace it, just letting it lie on the grass and that improved it somewhat. It’s time to replace the coax in the ground just on principal, but again that will have to wait until spring.

So, I’ve got a nice new radio, but can’t fully enjoy it right away.

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