ARRL

KL7RRC Challenges the Aleutians

Yuri Sushkin, N3QQ

n3qq@na-234.com


Cold rain, freezing temperatures and blasting winds make for ham radio Aleutian style.


Just to give you a teaser, Adak is the most unusual town I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been a lot of places. It’s like a town plucked from somewhere deep in the twilight zone. By this I do not mean anything derogatory. I always say that the people ARE the town, and the people of Adak are incredible. I also say that it’s not the cards, but how you play them. The people of Adak have been dealt some tough cards; some of the worst weather in the world, and a town that is eerie, that comes with a lot of unique challenges… — Ken Williams, The Great Siberian Sushi Run

The last “new-one” in the western Aleutians was Ogliuga Island (IOTA NA-233) of the Delarof Group. Our team consisted of Yuri Zaruba, UA9OBA, Johnny Kiesel, KE7V, and Yuri Sushkin, N3QQ. We activated it using the call sign KL7RRC/p June 10-17 2009. RRC stands for Russian Robinson Club, of which we are all members. This is the second Alaskan expedition for our “Discovery of Alaska” program that began in 2008 with the KL7DX DXpedition to Chuginadak Island, home of the Mount Cleveland Volcano.

IOTA’s logo has a picture of a palm tree. You may ask, “What are you guys doing in Alaska?” Call us “The Wrong Way Gang.” We are not alone; many other IOTA enthusiasts are organizing DXpeditions to the Canadian Arctic and Alaska. You may have worked Mike, K9AJ/VYØ; Bruce, KD6WW/VYØ; Cezar, VE3LYC (VO2A, VYØA, VYØO); Merle, N6PYN/KL7; Brad, KA5CDJ/KL7; Hugh, K6HFA (K7A), or Mike, K6UMO/KL7, operating from a far north location.

They all know firsthand how expensive and unpredictable each trip up north is. Schedules of small airlines are nothing more than a schedule. Planes may not fly for weeks. Boats get broken. Outfitters are nonexistent or they have totally different expectations about your needs, despite months of long talks on the phone. Finally, the weather dictates when and where your next stop is.

The Aleutian Islands with few exceptions belong to the Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge and are managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. If you plan your IOTA journey to Alaska, please call their office in Homer first. They have information about the islands, local travel conditions and restrictions, and can help with local contacts.

Specter of the Aleutians

We arrived on Adak Island (NA-039) and settled in to the town of Adak, Alaska. Adak was known as a “Remote Guardian.” It was established in 1942 as an air base and continued, in one capacity or another, as a military base until 1997 when the base was decommissioned and the town of Adak was incorporated.

The town of Adak’s infrastructure was built to support thousands of military families, but its current population is about 50 people during winter and slightly more during fishing season. [The 2009 US Census estimated population for Adak is 361. — Ed.] We walked by the empty playgrounds of a school that was converted to city offices, a library and the police department, and a housing office with the repair shop of an environmental cleanup contracting company. We all had the sad feeling of being in a ghost town, especially seeing it at night. The name of the local bar says it all. Instead of “Hot Rock Cafe” it is called the “Cold Rock Cafe.”

Upon arrival on Adak Island the evening of June 7 we installed a vertical dipole for 20 meters and KL7RRC made about 600 contacts while negotiating charter costs, getting food and fuel. Food in Adak is expensive with a dozen eggs costing $7.65.

We also learned that our chartered 100 foot vessel was out of commission. The mechanic was to fly in from Anchorage in about a week and our shipment (generator, antennas, food, camping gear) would not arrive until June 11. With great support from the locals we were able to find a new charter boat, rain gear, generator and everything else required to make our DXpedition happen.

Off to Ogliuga

Captain Ridgley Stier smiled with surprise when we mentioned where we wanted to go, but he took a moment, looked at his charts and the weather, then came back and said "Okay." Our adventure had started!

At 7 AM on June 9 we sailed toward Ogliuga Island on the 35 foot F/V Julia Anna (see Figure 1). We had to cross about 120 nautical miles of open water, right on the border where the Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean meet. Our landing skiff had two “horse powers” (Yuri/Yuri or Yuri/John) but no motor. (By the way, the first ham radio licenses issued in Russia were issued indicating not watts, but horsepower, which was the measurement in use then. How much horsepower do you have in your shack?)

The first few days on Ogliuga Island where great, perfect HF propagation, sunshine, we even got sunburns in the Aleutians! (See Figure 2.) We actually were able to see Gareloi Volcano, located just 10 miles north of us on Gareloi Island. (See Figure 3.) We took a few pictures, which are now in the Gareloi Volcano historical file at the Alaska Volcano Observatory. Then a big storm came in. Our full rain gear and many layers of clothing did not help much. It was bitter cold.

During WWII Ogliuga Island was used as an emergency airfield by the US Air Force. This history lesson was brought to life for us when we almost stepped on a live mortar shell near our camp. Exact coordinates of the shell’s location were sent to US Corps of Engineers for removal.

Our Shack on the Island

To get a sense of our operating conditions imagine the 1960s with the first human flight to space and landing on the Moon. Our operating position was outside of the tent. It was a small capsule-size table and camp chair with a tarp to protect the operator from the wind and rain (see Figure 4). Yuri Zaruba, UA9OBA, liked to work Europe during the night and he had to turn off the voice-operated transmit switch to warm up his toes with the foot switch. Just as you warm up your car during the winter, we had to dry our equipment every morning, because of the moisture.

Our antennas were all homebrew. We had a full-size vertical dipole for 20 meters and a 1/4 wave for 40 meters. Our transceivers were an ICOM IC-7600 and IC-7000. Our amplifier was an Ameritron ALS-600S all powered by a Honda EU2000i generator.

Most of our activity was on 20 meters, then 30 and 40 meters. We had perfect propagation to Europe, Asia and VK/ZL but not many US contacts, although we always tried very hard. Our 20 meter dipole and 40 meter 1/4 wave worked very well mounted at the edge of salt water. We got a chance to operate 6 meters, “the magic band,” and about 50 contacts were made during a short opening to JA from AO01, a very rare grid!

During the last few days we had no sugar and butter left. Our fresh water ran out about 24 hours before the boat’s arrival. We had no satellite phones or HF contact with Adak. Our only link to the outside world was ham radio. Because of bad weather our return was rescheduled several times. With help from Tim, K7CTR, and Dick, N7RO, who called a friend of Captain Stier, we knew when to be ready for pickup. Before leaving the island we installed a plaque commemorating our successful DXpedition (see Figure 5).

We would like to thank Sergey Morozov, RA3NAN, for his financial support, ICOM America for providing the equipment, our families and all of you who contributed toward our success. In all our DXpedition made 6200 contacts. We hope when you contacted KL7RRC, you had as much fun as we did (see Figure 6)!

On the Edge of Danger

For a perspective on the dangers of the Aleutians here is a copy of an e-mail we received from Captain Stier:

Friday, June 26, 2009, 5:12 PM

Hi Yuri. Talked to my son in Bristol Bay yesterday and told him of your expedition, he said he had heard of you guys and knew about your previous expeditions. Ironically we just rescued a group of 4 surveyors from Amchitka a few days ago. They had been ferried to the beach by the skipper and his deckhand when the motor failed on the way back out to the boat. The men were blown out to sea and were adrift and the men on the beach had no way to get back to the boat to issue a mayday. They then gathered up all the buoys they could from the beach and fashioned a raft out of buoys, some old trawl web and driftwood. Finally the next evening the wind came down enough to try to get out to the boat, which they managed to do and got a mayday out to the Coast Guard. My friend Adam and I got a ride out to Amchitka via another passing fishing boat and got to the guys stranded on the boat there, they didn’t know how to run the boat and needed someone to bring them back here safely. We got aboard and figured out the systems and got them back here the next day. The Coast Guard found the men adrift and airlifted them into a helicopter and had them back here after two days and nights adrift with nothing in the boat for survival. Very lucky to be still alive and luckier yet to be found at all. I’m just glad it wasn’t you guys, I think you can see from this what kind of risk you might be taking, anything can happen! Talk to you later, Ridge.

Photos courtesy of Yuri Sushkin, N3QQ.


Yuri Sushkin, N3QQ, was first licensed in 1987 in Russia as UA9OPA and held the call sign N7UJN from 1991-2007. He is active with the IOTA program and has operated from many IOTA “new-one” islands worldwide. When not on the air, Yuri sells commercial two-way radio equipment and systems. Yuri lives in Sudden Valley, Washington, is married and has two boys. He can be reached at 1941 Lake Whatcom Blvd #155, Bellingham, WA 98229.