Sunday, July 28, 2013

Journey vs. Destination

Earlier this week I worked BY4IB/4 on 15 meters, shooting over the pole on a summer path that is daylight almost all the way. It was in part a side benefit of recent winds.

There is nothing remarkable about this contact. It was enjoyable, perhaps driven by the challenge of QRP and simple antennas. The contact took many calls over several days, until the conditions were just good enough for him to hear me. This is one constraint for the smaller station: you often need ideal conditions to have a shot for certain DX. Big stations can make their own conditions!

But with high power and a big tower one is more likely to expect the QSO, and get annoyed if success is elusive. That sense of expectation, that one deserves the contact, can erase the joy of DXing. At least that's my experience, and what I've observed in many others. For some, joy in the hobby can be inversely proportional to investment in the station.

Let me now use this QSO as a jumping off point to explain my current attitude towards ham radio.

Before I went QRT for 20 years back in 1992 I was pretty serious about radio for some years. I contested, pursued rare DX, pushed my station to get the most ERP out of it on all bands and directions that mattered, and just generally spent a lot of time with the hobby. This included helping others out with towers, antennas and other things.

I proved to be too much for me. When the station had to be totally dismantled for the building of my new house I found that the passion was gone. For a few months I planned an even bigger tower and bigger antennas and then I quite simply ran out of steam. I knew it was time for a change. I moved on to other pursuits, both professional and personal, barely giving radio a thought.

As I wrote in a post when I started this blog I accidentally discovered that I still had an interest in the hobby. I then pursued that interest to see if it would stick. It did. However it was with a difference.

In a throwback to when I was first licensed as a teenager in 1972 my passion turned to getting on the air just for the fun of it. This meant doing what I could with the little I could afford, and talking to all the DX I could. It wasn't easy. My first station was 50 watts CW from an 807 transmitter, a receiver that was terribly old and obsolete even back then -- Hammarlund HQ-129X -- and a 20 meters dipole up about 12 feet. It all cost me about $75 and pretty much depleted my meager savings. I couldn't even afford solder so all my antenna connections were done with electrical tape.

Even so I did have great fun and experience a sense of achievement. The solar indices were rapidly sinking into the basement following the peak in the late 1960s, so DX from the centre of the continent was challenging. Some surprises still stand out in my memory. Such as when an FO8 responding to my evening CQ on 20 CW. My teenaged ham friends with more resources built better stations, which I envied and spurred to do the best I could with what I had.

Time moved on and my station improved. I had some modest success in contests and my DXCC totals were climbing. Activity had to fit around university studies and other youthful pursuits. I was mostly QRT after moving to Ottawa in 1979 other than contests from others' stations, usually multi-single and multi-multi in DX contests. That wet my appetite for bigger and better things. I purchased a house with a large yard in 1985 to build a modest though competitive station. A tower, kilowatt and lots of aluminum followed. It was fun.

Then the time came when it wasn't fun any more. The more I pursued DX on HF and VHF I obsessed over the need for an even bigger station. Some hams would follow through with that drive to go for it. Instead I decided that when the fun was gone it all became little more than a chore that ate into too much of my life. Demolishing the house was the break point. I packed everything away in boxes and the garage walls, only pulling things out to sell or give away.

I could build a station now that is even bigger and better than any I've yet operated. But to do so would almost certainly lead to what drove me from ham radio for 20 years: that need to make the contact, to score the high score, to work every DXpedition. I don't want that so I am sticking to my roots. I will keep the challenge aspect of the hobby keenly honed by, in effect, operating with a handicap. So far it's working.

When the conditions are poor or even just average I can shut off the rig and do other things, and I do have many calls on my time and other enjoyable pursuits. Thus I operate less and have to work harder for the contacts I do make. The constraints I've placed on myself add to the pleasure, and spur me on to fiddling around with wire antennas as a low-impact path to (small) performance improvements.

For now that's enough. I will likely either refurbish my old FT-102 or purchase something with more power, if only to reduce the pain of DXing on the low bands. Where I go from there is hard to say. The probability is that I'll keep my station small, tweaking it to get the best performance I can from it. In my experience that's the way, at least for me, to stay interested and active.

A note on future posts: I am playing with antenna models and other experiments that should come to fruition in August. In other words expect more talk of antennas rather than posts like this one.

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