QRP Adventure in Canyonlands National Park, Utah
A QRP (low power operation) adventure in the National Parks (NP) of the US makes a lot of sense, given the global exchange rate for the US dollar. There is no need to go overseas for exciting, breathtaking vistas and overall ham radio fun, especially when there are some truly spectacular "natural wonders" in our own backyard. Canyonlands NP, Utah is certainly one of those must-see, destination "resorts" for the outdoor, backpacking adventurer. Couple that with some QRP ham radio fun and you have the ingredients for some great stories!
Steve and I met through the PolarBear QRP Yahoo Reflector, a winter, outdoor, QRP operating group of hams who like to occasionally participate in "outdoor adventures" with the goal of having fun, and of course, some QRP wintertime operations.
Steve is somewhat famous for his hikes into the nearby Colorado mountains with his pack goats, Peanut and Rooster, and is well known by many of the HF pack folks for his entertaining stories and fun YouTube videos of each adventure. After moving to New Jersey from Oregon, I began exploring many of the mountaintops of the Catskills and Adirondacks in New York, being particularly attracted to mountaintop fire towers, as they are perfect antenna support structures for backpack QRP operations!
So when a business-related trip to Las Vegas was scheduled, I e-mailed him about a possible "outing" within convenient commuting distances for each of us. We settled on the Canyonlands NP partly because of its scenic wonders but also for the opportunity to spend three days in the true backcountry of southeast Utah. Our plans quickly solidified with reservations in the park for camping. All I needed to do was bring my Elecraft K1 transceiver and backpack gear for the adventures of the "Old Goats QRPxpeditions" to begin!
Day 1 in Paradise (April 11, 2008)
I arrived near midnight at Canyonlands Needles District after a lengthy drive from Las Vegas. Steve, N0TU, was asleep and my arrival a rude awakening. We exchanged greetings and I was quickly into my sleeping bag to catch a few hours of sleep before our early departure into the Needles District. We were eager to start our 6 mile hike to our reserved camping area -- Devil's Pocket.
A sunny, crisp morning came early and we were on our way after a quick stop at park headquarters to get vehicle parking passes. Canyonlands, at 547 square miles is a very large park broken into three districts and is intersected by the Colorado and Green rivers. We were going to spend three days in the backcountry of the Needles district and had secured overnight camping reservations at one of the designated camping spots near the Chesler Park area of the Needles. Chesler Park is a high country grazing meadow area rich in history and bounded by 500 foot towering rock monoliths known as the "needles." Our plan was to establish a base camp with exploration hikes from this base camp on Day 2.
QRP activity on 20 and 40 meters was planned for both mornings and evenings. I had brought my Elecraft K1 transceiver, multiband dipole antenna and Jackite 28 foot collapsible fiberglass kite pole. The park is mostly rock and sand so ground conductivity conditions were as bad as it can get for RF. Steve had brought his ATS-3A HF CW transceiver, assorted wire antennas along with a Buddistick vertical and a new prototype shock-cord lightweight mast provided by the Buddipole folks for testing and evaluation. He left his Yaesu FT-817 transceiver in the car for possible SSB operations later on while car camping and day hiking.
Water availability in the park is characterized by a few springtime streams that quickly dry up under summer's heat during the June-October timeframe. We were fortunate that it had rained several days before our arrival and a few small pools of water on the smooth rock areas were available. We both were carrying 3 quarts of water anticipating we could pump additional water with our MSR water filter pumps (See sidebar on Safety). This is a hot, very dry and isolated country and hikers can become dehydrated very quickly. Staying hydrated is a primary safety objective and quickly becomes a critical life-sustaining objective, especially during the hot summer months. With humidity levels in the low teens, you don't sweat -- any perspiration evaporates quickly. Don't underestimate this danger when in these desert conditions.
We arrived in our camp named Devil's Kitchen, sandwiched between two large rock monoliths 100 yards off the park trail. I quickly set up my dipole on the Jackite kite pole. I was hoping to get on 20 meters before it closed down and make some contacts back east. Powering on the K1 brought a few muffled weak stations only! What was wrong? A scan of the CW band only brought a few signals -- our only diagnosis was bad band conditions. I changed the dipole over to 40 meters with similar conditions. Everything seemed to be functioning, low SWRs and no obvious faults. We could only surmise "bad band conditions." Skunked on Day 1 of our hike!
It was near sunset so we ate dinner and watched the sun drop as it illumined the Needles spires with the golden glow of a brilliant red sunset. We were camped at nearly 5500 feet so the temperature drops quickly after sunset and we were piling on clothes to stay warm. It was going to get cold with anticipated overnight temperatures in the low 30s.
Day 2 in Paradise (April 12, 2008)
We were awake at sunrise but reluctant to get out of the toasty sleeping bags. It was cold! But hunger, curiosity about band conditions and a desire to get going on our planned 12-13 mile day hike into one of the premier landmarks of the Needles District, aptly named Druid Arch, spurred us to get up. And more importantly, we were now looking for water after using our last few ounces during breakfast.
Forty meters has been one of my favorite bands every since my Novice days in the early 1960s. I've always had a fondness for this band and know from years of familiarity that generally 40 is a very good QRP sunrise/sunset CW band with lots of activity. Again I tried 40 but signals seemed very weak and we made a few contacts to the west but nothing really exciting. Maybe our location was a dark RF hole? We could only speculate as we hurriedly packed our day packs to begin our hike to Druid Arch and our search for water en route. I was excited because the hype of the Arch ("It stands high on the mesa top above Elephant Canyon, with nothing but blue sky behind it.") was almost too much to be true.
Steve packed his ATS3A and Buddistick antenna for the day trip. If we could find a good high spot on our way back through Chesler Park, we would set up and see if we could make some contacts and retest the theory of the park as an RF absorption black hole.
Druid Arch was amazing! Although the hike was a challenging effort and a scramble in places and certainly not for the faint of heart, the size and immensity of this box canyon with multi-colored strata walls towering thousands of feet on all sides and the Arch itself prominent in the middle jutting at least 300 or 400 feet in height. You have to see it to gain perspective on its size. We fantasized of operating in the hole of the Arch but knew that propagation wouldn't make it over the huge rock canyon walls. But what a picture that would make!
The day was escaping fast so we started our 6 mile trek back to our campground. After several miles we were in Chesler Park looking for an optimal location to set up the Buddistick antenna. We found a somewhat prominent high-ground area on a rock with good takeoff angles both east and west. We quickly set up the Buddistick and Steve got on the air as I became the ham radio "ambassador" answering questions of curious hikers as they passed by. It's always fun to tell folks about ham radio and how "you can communicate all over the world with the power of a Christmas tree light!" "Yes," you explain, "radio waves are magic and we even use Morse code to click out our messages" as the incredulous eyes of your audience reflect awe and amazement.
Of course they really look at you and wonder "why would you come out here in the middle of nowhere with that itty-bitty radio and clickity-clack messages to parts unknown when you could do the same with a cell phone or e-mail?" Sensing their skepticism, you then explain that "it's for the sport of it," which elicits some "ahhh's." Others get it right away and add "Wow! That's really cool!" and occasionally, you get that knowing recognition "of my uncle was a ham radio guy" with looks of amazement in their eyes. "You're one of them" they say with their thoughts!
How's Steve doing? Lot's of 20 meter CQs but nothing! The bands were either dead or we were in the RF dead zone! Could Canyonlands really be a RF black hole with no signals in or out? We were becoming more skeptical. Maybe we somehow had angered the RF gods?
It's now late in the afternoon and we still had a 3 or 4 mile hike back to camp. We packed up and hit the trail, hungry, sweaty, tired and eager to get back to camp. Would 40 meters be dead also? We can't be skunked on this trip we were saying to ourselves. There was too much pre-trip hype with all of our buddies on various QRP Yahoo forums or reflectors. We will make QSOs we say to ourselves! This is the true spirit behind QRP "doing more with less and never giving up till you succeed!"
In a short time we're back in camp after climbing through several "notches" in the cliffs that join various valleys between the rock wall cliffs. I tentatively turn on the K1 and 40 meters is alive with many stations popping loud! Yahoo! I knock out a bunch of contacts and then Steve takes over for a stint and makes contact with Gary, WA5GFO, in Mino, Oklahoma who can't believe we're QRP and gives us a "20 over 9," which brings happy smiles to our trail weary faces!
Wow! We think, this is really cool! Now the QRP gods were smiling on us! Later we climb into the bags, happy and content, thinking that "it doesn't get any better than this" and discussions of what more fun could we have tomorrow! And for a nighttime serenade, a striped owl hoots out a Morse code good night message to a couple of sleepy "Old Goats" who quickly sank into the bliss of the warm sleeping bags.
Day 3 in Paradise (April 13, 2008)
A pre-dawn coyote's mournful cry awakened us to another beautiful sunrise. After a quick breakfast and some more QRP fun on 40 meters, we pack up and took a different route back through the park. This place is amazing! Seemingly every trail is a different perspective on Nature's sculpting handiwork that crafted this landscape over millions of years. We passed huge "mushroom" pinnacles formed by different colored rock strata layers. We dub one massive mushroom "the mothership" because of its resemblance to some extraterrestrial space ship. Yes, your imagination kicks into high gear, especially dreaming of ice cream, pizza or your favorite "comfort" food, especially after three days of dehydrated trail food!
We were pushing to get back to the cars and back to our overnight campground at the "Outpost," a camping area just adjacent to the NP, especially for a hot shower and an iced tea. But more importantly, we had crafted plans of climbing a nearby mesa with an abandoned Rohn 25 TV tower on it that we had spotted from the Outpost campground. What a great opportunity to hang my dipole off that tower with a 1000 foot altitude and takeoff angles in all directions. Clearly this was a QRP dream and a story just waiting to be told!
The climb up to the mesa top was challenging with some exposure but we used some old rock climbing techniques to minimize the risk and before long were on the top of the mesa. Wow! What a view! And our QRP expectations were running high. I quickly got my multiband dipole up as a sloper with one end at the 35 foot level on the tower and the other end about 10 feet off the rock surface and tied to a distant tree. The feed point was probably up 25 feet -- not bad given the location. We fired up on 20 meters but didn't raise anyone on CW so I quickly changed over to 40 meters since it was nearing sunset. 40 meters was hot again and I made numerous contacts in the Midwest and West Coast. Steve set up the Buddistick again and jumped on 20 meters SSB and started having a ball. First was a QSO with Sonny, KH6CB, and then Norm, NH6I, who was also running QRP (2 W!) and Randy, KH6RC, who actually knew exactly where we were and more unbelievably knew the proprietors of the Outpost, Tracey and Gary. Steve had a really fun QSO and we promised to share the "hellos" with the owners of the Outpost store. But the real fun was the just before sunset QSO with Masa, JA7UJ! See the Audio and Video sidebar for links to the actual recorded audio of this QSO.
It was now nearing sunset and a bank of clouds had moved into the western horizon. We were eager to capture the sunset on film from this fantastic location and spent the next 45 minutes taking pictures or videos. After the sunset it was time to take the antennas down and start our climb back in the dark using only our bright Petzl headlamps. What fun, but again not for the inexperienced climber. We slowly descended being sure of step and before long we were basking in the glow of a campfire, reminiscing of all of our experiences the last three days, pleasantly fatigued but psyched by the great stories we were going to be able to tell.
The next morning brought the celebratory breakfast at the Outpost to share our stories with Tracey and Gary, the owners of the Canyonland's Outpost, eat heartily and prepare for our respective long drives back to civilization. Already we were thinking of our next Old Goats QRPxpedition and how much more fun and stories we can create.
What a great adventure! Not only did we have some great backpacking and QRP experiences, but we visited one of our National Parks of unparalleled beauty. Better yet, it was in our own "backyard!" We're planning our next adventure to some equally scenic area and, of course, to take our QRP radios to "activate" these vista locations. You should do the same, if nothing more than your local park for a picnic and a simple dipole in the trees. As your experience grows, maybe we'll hear your QRP signal from some exotic location in the US!
Backcountry Safety Considerations
The backcountry outdoors can be dangerous. Always be respectful of local requirements (for example, restrictions of campfires) and conditions. Review your proposed route with local Rangers as they want your backcountry experience to be successful. They can be a wealth of knowledge and also point out scenic opportunities. You are responsible for your own safety and you must consider the dangers and your personal limitations before taking undue risks in backcountry hikes.
Physical conditioning is of obvious importance. Be honest with yourself.
Get a medical clearance from your doctor. Don't take any chances. You don't want to be a statistic!
• Carry plenty of water or have the means to filter/purify water from local sources. In desert climes water is critical to your survival. Check with Rangers, locals, other hikers as to availability of water sources before starting your trip.
• Always carry a map of the hiking area. The updated "Ten Essentials"are mandatory for any backcountry excursions.
• Remain in one place if you become separated or lost from your hiking companions.
• Always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return.
• Never try to cross a flooded section of trail. You don't know how deep it is.
• During a lightning storm avoid lone trees and high ridges. Lie in a ditch if possible.
• Be careful near the edges of anything, such as rivers, cliffs, overhangs. Lichens on rocks, when wet, are as slippery as ice.
• Find a hiking mentor, align with an outdoor club or attend classes at outdoors stores.
• Your safety must take precedence over all other considerations.
Video and Audio QSLs
Steve, a master at video production, quickly put together a series of videos on YouTube (search on N0TU) highlighting this trip. We both use MP3 consumer devices that have a line-in, headphone jack and a built-in microphone capability for recording either CW or SSB QSOs. And today's compact digital cameras now provide high-quality video capability. With compact flash cards of 4 gigabytes or more and several camera batteries, you can capture many days of video and audio of your outdoor adventure. Although there are many software applications to process this content, we both use Microsoft's MovieMaker (free with XP) and Audacity for processing the audio tracks from the MP3 player.
Ultralight Backpacking Disciplines:
There are a number of excellent recent books describing the ultralight revolution in backpacking. The overall goal is to reduce the weight of what you carry, thereby increasing your hiking enjoyment. There are a number of tradeoffs, but the essence is not to pack what you won't use or expect to use on your trip. This also applies to your QRP equipment. It's not necessary to carry that 5 pound, 5 Ah gel cell battery with you can get a Lithium-ion (Li-ion) 4.4 Ah battery pack that weighs 13 ounces! And there are a number of lightweight, fully featured QRP rigs on the market to minimize the weight and physical size of your rig. There are a numerous Web sites dedicated to debating these tradeoffs, particularly BackpackingLight and QRP-L Yahoo Forums.
Guy Hamblen, N7UN, has been a ham since 1963 where the deep hum of big power supplies and the dazzling meter lights of his first Elmer in Idaho captured his imagination as a teenager. Hiking, mountain climbing and the outdoors has always been a part of his life. Guy was first licensed as K7YYK, then AA7QZ, then finally N7UN. After relocating to New Jersey with his job at the UPS Information Technology center, he began hiking in the Catskills and Adirondacks of the Northeast, always taking his trusty Elecraft K1 transceiver to have some QRP fun in the field. It's always a reward when you get to answer the inevitable question: "You're doing what?" That in itself is the reward for QRP in the field.
Steve Galchutt, N0TU, adventure into ham radio all started back in the early '50s with a one transistor crystal set he got for my 9th birthday. Steve roamed the neighborhood clipping on to fences, down spouts and anything metal to see what he could pull in on that tiny earphone. He was enamored with radio waves. QRP has been his main focus over the years, along with building his own gear and operating outdoors. He has built numerous QRP rigs from scratch and kits including several Elecrafts (K2, K1 and KX1), KD1JV's little ATS series of SMD designs for backpack/trail use. The "magic that happens" when, out on the trail, miles from nowhere, you are able to make contact using just a simple wire in a tree and a tiny CW rig you've built yourself. That is the excitement for me! It's that same thrill you got from having your very "First QSO" all over again. Several years ago he got interested in pack goats and now Rooster and Peanut share his load when they go backpacking or for a QRP/goat hike. See June 2007 QST, p 20.
Guy Hamblen, N7UN
Steve Galchutt, N0TU