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Adventure in the Arctic: VO2A Expedition to Labrador

11/23/2009

I have been interested in island chasing ever since I can remember. After moving to Canada, I operated as VE3LYC and contacted 947 IOTA stations from the 1021 on the air. Why chase islands? Some of them are located so remotely, and are so difficult to access, that hams only rarely get there and for only very short periods of time. Under these conditions, it is more challenging to break the pileups and more rewarding to get into the log.


For quite some time I wanted to be at the other end of the pileup, not only for the thrill and experience, but also to bring my own contribution to the hobby for the many wonderful and unforgettable moments I enjoyed over the years. The one that I would put on the air would have to be a “rare one” and consequently not a very easy task.


At the end of 2006 I was corresponding with Ken Frankcom, G3OCA, following his trip to C94KF (AF-103) when he asked me whether I was interested in activating some IOTA group. This is how we began planning a trip to the Canadian Arctic.


I suggested that we could head out to the Labrador IOTA groups NA-194 and 205. They were both on the Most Wanted IOTA list and were in demand by most IOTA members. They were close to largely populated areas in Europe and North America, which would ensure sufficient activity. Ken agreed and I began to investigate it further.


It was apparent from the very beginning that we needed strong and reliable local support. Our base had to be in Nain, the northernmost community in Labrador. I decided to contact Fran Williams, the director of the local radio station. Shortly after I spoke with her, I received a short but very positive e-mail from her husband Brian, in which he recommended I get in touch with Paul Fenton, an experienced guide with Labrador Wild North Expeditions (LWNE). Paul appeared to be a lot more than just an experienced guide. He was professional, enthusiastic and very determined.


It took a few discussions with Paul to decide on the islands we would attempt. All the islands around Nain, but more so those farther north, present serious polar bear and black bear problems. Paul Island was close to Nain and therefore an easy choice for NA-205, but finding the most convenient island for NA-194 involved a careful analysis. Paul explained that a larger island is preferable to a small one, since it will give bears more room. This is how we concluded that Finger Hill Island was the best candidate for NA-194.
 

Details, Details

We now moved to establish the detailed expedition plan. Situated at approximately 160 km N-NE of Nain, Finger Hill Island is completely outside motor canoe range. Only a large vessel could take us and our cargo so far up the northern coast. The problem is that such vessels are only rarely available.


Consequently, Paul suggested that we use a helicopter. This will only take about 45 minutes each way, which is an advantage in case of poor weather conditions. Travel to Paul Island would be far less challenging, since the island is within a few kilometers from Nain.


Ken and I decided to run both his Kenwood TS-50 transceiver and my ICOM IC-7000 transceiver at 100 W, with two multiband vertical wire antennas attached to 10 meter high fiberglass telescoping masts. For power we used four car and marine batteries. Each station will run for several hours and then a Honda E1000i generator will recharge the batteries.


We only brought the rigs, antennas, sleeping bags and some limited clothing. Everything else would have to be provided locally and was left in charge of LWNE. Also, we couldn’t use any insect repellant spray nor DEET-based product since these hamper the scent ability of his dogs, Snook and Eiger.


With all the planning now finalized, the total cost estimate was $14,000.

North to Nain

Ken and I met in Halifax on July 28 and took a flight to Goose Bay. The ceiling was so low in Nain that flights were cancelled several days in a row. We experienced five agonizing days in Goose Bay waiting for a flight up north.


We finally left Goose Bay on Monday, August 4, in a twin Otter, for a 3 hour flight. The landscape changed rapidly from marshy areas and long meandering creeks to a myriad of lakes and islands.


Chopper to Finger Hill

The weather was gorgeous in Nain, mostly blue sky with small cloud patches. Paul welcomed us at the airport around 3 PM, and told us we would be flying out to Finger Hill Island in a couple of hours. He insisted that we repack everything and take only what we absolutely need for our stay there over the next 3 days.


Paul moved everything onto the helicopter pad, where we met Gary, the pilot. It didn’t take long to pack the gear and then squeeze our entire three-man and two-dog team in the cabin. As we advanced farther and farther north, the trees vanished quickly, while the islands rose to greater and greater heights above the ocean.


As we approached, we saw the crested high shores of the rocky Finger Hill Island. Paul asked Gary to do a flyby to look for wildlife. Amazed, we were all contemplating the breathtaking views of the rugged terrain as the helicopter took us around the island. Finally, we landed and for a few instants we felt like visitors from a different world watching the austere landscape with a straight vertical massive volcanic cliff located just a little to the southeast.

Feet on the Ground; Antennas in the Air

After taking some photos Gary took off, Paul began setting up the tents and the anti-bear fence, whereas Ken and I started to work on raising the antennas for 20 and 30 meters. As the northern sun set, we finished out tests and concluded that we couldn’t operate simultaneously as initially planned. The receiver of Ken’s TS-50 was affected by the IC-7000. We decided that I would operate first on 30 meter CW while Ken would rest and be ready for 20 meter SSB in the morning.


With only one station on the air, the pressure mounted. It only took me a few calls to face a considerable pileup, which continued all night. The most rewarding moment on 30 meters was when the Australian and New Zealand stations came in around their expected short propagation window. In early morning I switched to 20 meter CW to give Japan and Asia a chance.


Once the propagation conditions with Asia wound down, Ken was ready to take over, running a pretty heavy European and North American pileup on 20 meter SSB. Paul prepared our breakfast one at a time, so that one of us was always on the air. The weather was absolutely stunning with beautiful clear blue sky, a soft breeze and temperatures above 20 degrees C.


With Ken at the microphone, before going to take a nap Paul told me to: “Keep an eye on things.” I began walking up and down the camp taking photos. Things were quiet when all of a sudden, a huge, dark-furred animal jumped toward me from behind the large rocks just outside our camp. In an instant, his shape and the noise scared the life out of me! I was ready to yell the alarm when I realized that the large beast was not a bear but a young male caribou.

Keeping Up the Qs

We took turns at the microphone to maintain a steady QSO rate. The operation continued, with short downtimes, throughout the entire day on 20 meter SSB and CW. That evening, I was back on 30 meters. Then, right in the middle of the night the propagation simply vanished like someone had pulled the plug.


At first I checked the rig, then the battery, but both seemed to be working. Could it be the antenna? Was it still standing or maybe the wind took it down? It was extremely cold during the nighttime, just a few degrees above freezing, so I wasn’t thrilled about going outside to check it out, but it had to be done. Contemplating the chore, I heard Paul passing by. I asked him to see if the antenna was still standing. “Yes, the antenna is standing very well,” he said, “but if you want to see some spectacular northern lights, you better come out now.”

Skylights

I didn’t wait for another invitation and was out in seconds to see virtually the entire sky above me on fire. Wow! What a range of watercolors, from pink to green to white. It was around 2 AM local time, but I decided to wake up Ken. “Ken,” I whispered. “Yeees,” he replied slowly, in a baritone voice. “Do you want to see some northern lights?” “Absolutely,” he replied quickly, “I have never seen them in my life!” “Well, then you need to get out really fast, as they seem to dim rapidly.”


We sat and watched in wonder, as if under a spell. The aurora didn’t last long, but wiped out the bands, thus giving me the chance to take a 3 hour nap before catching the early morning propagation on 20 meters.


In the early afternoon we started to take everything down. Paul worked on the tents while we packed the radio equipment. With all our gear, men and dogs crowded in the cabin, the helicopter took off and we said good bye to NA-194. Landing in Nain was very smooth, but it was cold and windy, with the windchill around freezing.

Dry, Warm and Ready for Round 2

Back at Fran and Brian’s home, we took a shower, rebooked our flights, ate dinner and then dove into the storytelling of our recent adventures. After a good deep sleep, we woke up refreshed and ready for more action. Paul picked us up and drove us to the docks where Henry, the boatman, was waiting with his motor canoe. Soon we were heading to Paul Island. It took less than half an hour to reach the landing site. Just minutes after landing, it started to rain. We threw a tarp over the radio gear and worked fast on setting up the camp.


The long delay in Goose Bay on the way up led to worries of delays on the way back seriously hampering Ken’s return to England. Consequently, we decided to have Ken leave the next morning. We set up only one radio tent, located about 20 meters from the rocky shore. While I would be operating during the nighttime, Ken could use Paul’s tent for rest.


Once the operation tent and the antenna were set up, we were ready to go. Ken was first to operate from Paul Island. After a short QSO, he noticed that the rig’s power dropped to 5 W. We both questioned the battery and decided to replace it. With a new battery in, Ken made another QSO after which his TS-50 simply went silent. After checking all the connections we realized quickly that there was nothing we could do to revive it. We shifted to my IC-7000 transceiver.

Paul Island on the Air

From time to time we would switch at the microphone and the log increased steadily. At nightfall I moved to 30 meter CW and later in the night to 40 meter CW, where I was able to log a couple of New Zealand stations, but after a good run the bands went silent again and after many unanswered CQs I decided to switch it off and take a rest.


Early morning would bring the first Australian station logged from Paul Island, on 20 meter CW, followed by a good series of Japanese and far-east Asian stations.

 


Ken’s departure was somewhat emotional for me. We had been through so many ups and downs together, but this was the responsible thing to do. We stood together for a photo then he jumped in the boat and left for Nain.

Paul Island Solo

During the second day of operation the wind started to bend the telescopic fiberglass antenna support quite heavily. Our multiband vertical wire antenna had no traps. Each band change required the mast to be taken down. Unlike the first night, the second one on the island was not eventless. At some point Snook and Eiger began barking on and off. Since I was working the pileup, I didn’t pay much attention, otherwise I would have heard the nearby whale breathing 20-30 meters from shore.


The next day Chris came to pick us up and take us to Nain. After another night in Nain, with the help of Fran’s daughter who was working for Air Labrador, I was able to catch that day’s only flight out to Goose Bay. Unfortunately, the flight stopped in all of the other five northern communities so I missed my connection to Halifax.


While Ken and I were up in Nain traveling to the islands, Brian Williams wrote about our IOTA expedition on his blog. The story was read by Carl Sonnichsen, VO2KDS, from Goose Bay who invited us both to give him a shout if we were in any need when passing though. Being stuck in Goose Bay again, I decided to give Carl a call. Carl and his wife Laura, VO2YFA, invited me to overnight in their house without any hesitation. I am most grateful to them for that and for a very enjoyable evening spent in their company, chatting about VO2A and ham radio.


Next morning I continued to Halifax and then to Ottawa. I arrived in Kingston just past midnight, 2 weeks after I departed to Labrador. My wife Lucia was very happy to see me back and I was happy to learn that Ken also returned home safe and sound, to the relief of his wife Joan.

Final Tally

Very shortly upon my return I entered the paper log data into an electronic log and carried out some statistical analysis. From each island group we logged about 1700 QSOs with stations on six continents. From NA-194, 68 percent of the QSOs were in CW, while 59 percent were with stations in Europe, 34 percent in North America and 6 percent in Asia. From NA-205, 62 percent of the QSOs were in CW, with 41 percent of the stations in Europe, 51 percent in North America and 6 percent in Asia. A total of 2200 different stations in 63 DXCC countries made the logs.


We would like to thank our families, particularly our wives Lucia and Joan, for their continuous encouragement and support. We are very pleased to acknowledge the financial support received from IREF, GDXF, ICOM Canada, Chiltern DX Club, GM DX Club, Mediterranean DX Club and Clipperton DX Club, for which we are truly thankful. LWNE is graciously acknowledged for their professional services and contribution toward the success of this expedition. Finally, we wish to express our thanks for the top individual donors: JE1DXC, VE3JV, VE7QCR, JF4VXT, JA8MS, VE7DP and JA1QXY, as well as to all those who included individual donations with their direct QSL requests (see the VO2A page on QRZ.com).

All photos courtesy of Cezar Trifu, VE3LYC.

Cezar Trifu, VE3LYC, has been a radio amateur since 1968. His father, YR5TI and YO3TU, played a role in the founding of the Romanian Short Waves Amateur Association in 1937 and in reactivating ham radio after the WW II. His interest started with SWLing and he was eventually licensed as YO3YC. Cezar has always been an avid DXer. He moved to Canada with his family in 1992 and was licensed as VE3LYC in late 1995. Since then he has confirmed 336 DXCC entities (335 SSB, 333 CW, 246 RTTY), 9BDXCC, over 2300 Challenge points, as well as WAZ (SSB, CW) and 5BWAZ. He is particularly interested in the island chasing and has confirmed 960 IOTA groups, holding the only IOTA 2000 Gold Level Certificate in Canada and the only IOTA 2004 Gold Level Certificate in North America. Recently, Cezar operated as VO2A from NA-194 and 205, and VY0A from NA-186, at the time #1 on the Most Wanted IOTA List  from North America. Cezar can be reached at 410 College St, Kingston, Ontario K7L 4M7, Canada,  ve3lyc@hotmail.com

 

Cezar Trifu, VE3LYC



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