I learned some valuable lessons yesterday as I sought to activate my first park through Parks On The Air, or POTA.
I gathered up my radio gear and headed out, not knowing whether I would actually make it to Potlatch State Park, get set up, and operate. I got my morning coffee and turned up the volume on my Kenwood D710G so I could monitor the N7SK repeater. I had just about convinced myself that the day would be just as nice if I took a quiet drive and consumed my coffee, but then had a conversation with Ben AB7I and mentioned my preparations for POTA.
Ben, of course, is an accomplished POTA operator. I described him to my spouse as the Yoda of POTA. It will probably suffice to say that Ben knows more about POTA than I likely ever will.
But back to the QSO with Ben. On the 2-meter repeater, we talked about POTA and where I would set up. I mentioned Potlatch State Park. It turns out that Ben has worked from that park many times. He offered to join me there in a bit to see if he could offer any helpful pointers and I readily accepted.
When I got to the park, I almost chose a spot away from the water. However, part of the enjoyment of POTA operations is enjoying the beauty of the landscape around you, so I chose to set up at a picnic table about 100 feet from the bank of Hood Canal and next to an old big-leaf maple tree. The sun was out, the breeze was light, and there were very few people about.
I really wanted to try my new Chameleon CHA LEFS end-fed sloper antenna. It is a very sleek, lightweight wire antenna that promised no-tune capability for the bands I’m most interested in. I tied a shot bag to some light line and flung it over a branch about 20 feet in the air.
After I got the dark olive-green wire stretched from the tree down to the ground, people started to show up. A few fellows with a kayak tried to walk right through the wire…twice. An older couple jogged by and the man suddenly turned and headed for the wire. Clearly, the wire was in the way and not easily detected, making the situation unsafe. I grumbled a bit to myself as I took the LEFS down and packed it away. I’ll use it another time when I can assure the safety of others.
My backup antenna was an MFJ Big Stick on a tripod. This is a base coil with a telescoping vertical antenna on top. I wasn’t really expecting much performance from it but it was a better choice with lots of people around than the wire antenna.
Radio and tuner
Now that the antenna was up, I turned my attention to the radio and tuner. I was using a Yaesu FT-891 and planned to operate mainly on 40 and 20 meters. With the no-tune wire, I had no real need for an antenna tuner. But with the Big Stick vertical antenna, I knew the tuner would be helpful.
I did not spend big bucks on the Yaesu antenna tuner recommended by Yaesu. Instead, I bought a mAT-30 antenna tuner off eBay. I had tested it at home and it tuned mismatches very quickly.
When I turned on the radio, it was still set for the last 40-meter frequency I had been on. A clear voice with plenty of volume was coming through the speaker. At least as a receive antenna, the vertical was working just fine!
I ended up making 12 contacts before band conditions deteriorated. I had conversations with other radio operators in Washington, Idaho, California, Nevada, Utah, South Dakota, Michigan, Texas, and Alberta (Canada). One contact knew exactly where Potlatch State Park was because he was responding to my CQ call from Belfair, Washington.
Most folks responded as if this was a relaxed contest. In other words, they weren’t pushing to exchange signal reports and move on to the next contact. A few wanted to chat. I did not get that sense of pressure one can feel in a big contest. I don’t like that kind of feeling which is why I don’t generally participate in contests. POTA operating felt…nice.
I used HAMRS to log my POTA contacts. Ben AB7I had some great tips about logging and the later processing of POTA logs. I had been looking for that kind of information but the most current content I found was out of date, so Ben’s help was invaluable.
When I got home, I cleaned up the log and submitted it. It was processed and accepted in just a few minutes. After my first day of POTA operating, I even got the “Support Your Parks Activator” award.
Was it fun/useful?
I had a great time. Of course, I fumbled around a bit getting the hardware all set up, and then I fumbled around some more with the first several contacts. We’ve all done that and I’ve found that the amateur radio community is pretty forgiving when they realize you are just trying something for the first time.
As the morning warmed up, the number of park visitors increased. Several people stopped to talk, wondering what I was doing. One very young boy and his mom stopped to “see my drone.” When I asked why they thought I had a drone, the mom explained, “because you have a tall antenna!” The young fellow was tremendously disappointed when I said I was talking on a radio, not flying a drone.
There is some emergency communications utility in POTA. Moving a completely portable station, setting up efficiently and safely, and then making contact with people in several states is clearly a rehearsal for a more emergent situation. I was pleased with how smoothly my station setup went.
Will I do it again? Absolutely yes. It would be fun to do this with more than one operator, either using one station or operating dual stations. As you’ll read in item #3 below, having another operator present could be very useful, too!
- If possible, visit the park first to scope out where I might prefer to set up the station. That would have saved time.
- Remember to remember safety. I had not thought about it as I prepared my gear for the POTA setup. Thus, I had no bright flagging to help people see the wire antenna angling down to the ground from the tree. I was glad, though, that I did pack a backup antenna.
- Think about the bathroom before I get set up. Once your station is out where passersby can see it, it takes more faith than I have to walk away from the station to use the bathroom. A big reason I shut down (besides all the people and the deteriorating band conditions) was to take a “bio break.”
- Consolidate my gear. I had a lot of redundancies. For example, why bring one coaxial cable when two would be better? I had doubles for many parts of the station. I can leave those in the car.
- I’ll consider a three-ring binder or a clipboard with document storage. My band plan sheet was held down with my shot bag. I did have a composition book and a pen for manually logging contacts in case my computer didn’t work, but it would work better if I could contain those items in one place and have a good writing surface available.
I send out a big thank you to Ben AB7I for coming out to help me successfully launch my first park activation. I became interested in POTA a few years ago but put off doing anything because I didn’t know anyone doing it. A few months ago at the MCARC club meeting, Ben talked about his experiences with POTA operating. That was the catalyst I needed to get started. Thank you, Ben!
Tom Salzer KJ7T