Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Dog Days of December

For many people in this wintry climate, myself included, the closing weeks of autumn can be a time of low energy. It is brought on by the lack of sunlight, rapidly worsening weather and, perhaps, the excess commercialism in advance of the holiday season. As a ham at this point in the solar cycle there is less refuge in the shack since the openings are short and often fail to coincide with our busy schedules.

Yet there are contests aplenty, and still tasks to be done before the big tower project is finished. In between there is operating to be done and fitting in the rest of life. Despite some inevitable lassitude and exhaustion I'm keeping busy. All that said, let me briefly take you through the things that are not helping my mood this dark, cold December.

DXpedition lull

There was a great flurry of DXpeditions in November. Most of those are now done, many having been trips to operate CQ WW CW from a rare multiplier country. There is the usual potpourri of DX on the bands, though not quite as much to cause excitement. That said I did get a thrill catching a not-a-DXpedition 7Q7 on 40 meters.

The excitement will return in January with quite a few DXpeditions planned to very rare and moderately rare entities. That, the deep cold of winter and increased sunlight are sure to spark my enthusiasm.

CQ WW CW is past

CQ WW is unquestionably the highlight of the annual contest calendar. Now they're done. There is an inevitable letdown in the immediate aftermath. I expect the excitement to return once we get closer to the ARRL DX events early in 2018.

I put in a modest effort in the ARRL 160 meter contest last weekend, more to try out my new 160 meter antenna and new equipment within the shack. My expectations should not have been as low as they were since the antenna works surprisingly well. In retrospect I should have operate more hours than I did.

I finally got the new contest computer set up which is a tremendous improvement over the ancient Vista laptop I used in the shack since returning to the air in 2013. My antenna switching system also works well despite being entirely manual. I am getting ever closer to SO2R.

Low band challenges

Low band aficionados love QRN-free winters and the bottom of the solar cycle. It is certainly true that 80 and 160 meters light up with activity and even throw some juicy DX our way. On the downside is that even when conditions are good the low bands are a challenge.

Constantly digging signals out of the noise is fatiguing. Timing sunrise and sunset openings to the far side of the world, while exciting, is disruptive to one's life and sleep pattern. It takes getting used to. Yet what can one do when the MUF to anywhere interesting drops below 7 MHz mid-evening. It's the low bands or nothing.

6 meters

There is a winter solstice sporadic E (Es) season. Unfortunately it is far less intense than the summer Es season. I've listened a bit to the activity when I see spots on the cluster but have yet to transmit. Working the same old stations motivates me very little.

Winter projects

There are many antenna projects that can be done in the coldest months. Last winter I put up my northeast Beverage in February. This year I want to add Beverages for other directions. I also plan to begin construction of a directional 80 meter array. Lots of planning has been done and the north field has been surveyed with the placement of the tower (driven element) and parasitic wire elements.

Despite the long list of winter antenna projects working outdoors in the snow and the wind is not all that pleasant. Although I enjoy winters and being active there is a significant difference between, say, snowshoeing, and antenna work. In one you're constantly on the move generating body heat, while in the other you quickly chill while moving slowly and doing detail work that must often be done with bare hands.

The trick is to alternate indoor and outdoor work to keep it from becoming a miserable grind. It also takes a few weeks to psyche myself to take the plunge to get out there and get it done. That means January. On the bright side there are no black flies or mosquitoes.


Despite my long list of woes there will indeed be a great deal of activity this winter. As I write this the big tower project is several day effort to completion, weather permitting. It will be nice to enjoy the fruits of my labour (and that of many friends) over the winter months. You will see a few articles coming up on topping the tower and discussing how the various antennas play.

Work inside the shack will continue apace. I intend to become SO2R and low-power multi-op capable before spring arrives. Additional work for the future will add the switching and filtering for high power, and more automation. You can get away with little filtering and other things when you stick to 100 watts in the contests.

My 2018 plan remains sketchy at present. I will return to this topic in January.

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