Saturday, November 27, 2010

Death Valley 4WD Trip Report

This is a trip report from a mini satellite "DX-pedition" to the remote valleys in northern Death Valley National Park. The entire route of the trip was recorded by a Spot Satellite Messenger and is shown in this trip map on Google Maps. The trip combined two of my favorite things -- remote backroads four-wheel driving and ham radio! The area around Death Valley doesn't have too many hams, so the latitude/longitude grid squres are pretty uncommon on the air. My main radio time was spent working the orbiting ham radio satellites. All in all, I had around 60 QSOs from the two rare grids (DM17 and DM16) with 21 separate satellite passes over the three days of operation.

For radio equipment, I brought along the twin FT-817 setup described in my earlier post. The station all packs into a small laptop computer bag, and I can set it up in about 10 minutes. The vehicle was a 2005 Toyota Tacoma 4WD, and worked well in the remote and rough back roads in this part of the country.

Monday (11/22/2010)
Monday we drove from Fairfield, over the Sierra Nevada at Lake Tahoe, and down highway 395 to Big Pine. From Big Pine it was another hour and a half along Death Valley Road and South Eureka Road to the Eureka Sand Dunes. We camped overnight at Eureka Dunes and I was able to make a number of contacts from that location.

Satellite Contacts From Eureka Dunes (DM17dc)
AO-07 (11/23/2010 0215z): Nothing heard, sat was in Mode A.
FO-29 (11/23/2010 0257z): Called CQ for approx 10 min during pass, good downlink return signals but no one else on bird.
VO-52 (11/23/2010 0355z): Worked WA6ARA and N8RO. Noticed doppler shift was way off due to not resetting the observer grid in SatPC32.

Tuesday (11/23/2010)
Tuesday we planned to drive from Eureka Dunes to Upper Warm Springs in the Saline Valley. This route goes through remote Dedeckera Canyon, up over Steele Pass, past the Marble Bath, and down into northeast Saline Valley. Before packing up the site I was able to make a few more contacts from the rare grid DM17:

Satellite Contacts From Eureka Dunes (DM17dc)
VO-52 (11/13/2010 1543z): WC7V, N7RP, N8RO, WA6ARA.
HO-68 (11/23/2010 1553z): Nothing heard, likely sat was in "off" on this pass.
VO-52 (11/23/2010 1718z): W7JPI, called CQ, no other stations on except for a long QSO.
HO-68 (11/23/2010 1740z): WC7V, N7RP, KO4MA, WA4NVM.
AO-27 (11/23/2010 2003z): AJ5C, K8YSE, K4MDA, N8RO, K7TEJ, KB1RVT, AA5CK, N3SCR, WA4NVM.
SO-50 (11/23/2010 2022z): W7JPI, K7MDH, AJ5C, NS7Q.

After packing up the camp, we then drove around the sand dunes, south through Dedeckera Canyon, and then stopped near Steele Pass to see some petroglyphs. From that location, I was able to work a few more sats:

Satellite Contacts from near Marble Bath (DM16ex)
AO-51 (11/23/2010 2303z): KB5MBJ, N8RO, AJ5C, K8YSE, KI6YAA, W7JPI, N5ZNL, KI4OTG, AA5PK, AA5CK.

We continued driving down into Saline Valley, and after sunset finally stopped at Upper Warm Springs. There, I was able to make a few more contacts -- it was really nice to have some satellite "chats" while sitting at the campfire, the sky had so many stars visible.

Satellite Contacts from Upper Warm Springs (DM16du)
FO-29 (11/24/2010 0202z): W7JPI. No one else on bird. Nice ragchew by campfire!
AO-07 (11/24/2010 0315z): W7LRD. Nice chat.
VO-52 (11/24/2010 0412z): WA6ARA. We were only ones on the sat, nice QSO.

Wednesday (11/24/2010)
The wind really picked up around 0000 local time Wednesday morning, so it was a difficult night in the tent! Before leaving, I was able to make a few more contacts:

Satellite Contacts from Upper Warm Springs (DM16du)
AO-07 (11/24/2010 1516z): WC7V, KC7MG, one station in DM14.
VO-52 (11/24/2010 1600z): WA6ARA, N7RP

We then packed up camp and drove over to the west side of Saline Valley. En route (11/24/2010 1749z), I was monitoring 18.150 HF and heard Dieter ZL8X starting up transmissions from a Kermadec Islands DXPeditition. I called him right back and got a nice 5-9 contact! Other than trying to keep up a sked, this was the only HF work on the trip. Early in the afternoon we arrived at a campsite on an access road to an abandoned mine in Keynot Canyon, on the west side of remote Saline Valley.

Satellite contacts from Keynot Canyon on west side of Saline Valley (DM16br)
SO-50 (11/24/2010 2053z): WC7V, K7CWQ, NM6W.
AO-27 (11/24/2010 2113z): AJ5C, WC7V, K7CWQ, KA5GTM, KG7EZ, K8YSE.
AO-51 (11/25/2010 0000z): WA6ARA, KG6ZVC, KG6NUB, K2AK, K7MDH, AC7SU, KC6LTY, WA9JER.
FO-29 (11/25/2010 0106z): N9AMW, WA6ARA. Doppler shift getting difficult again!
VO-52 (11/25/2010 0254z): N9AMW, W2???. Very noisy downlink for some reason.

Thursday (11/25/2010)
Thanksgiving Day we packed up camp, but before doing so I was able to make one more set of contacts:

Satellite Contacts from Keynot Canyon on west side of Saline Valley (DM16br)
VO-52 (11/25/2010 1618z): N7RP, KG0I.

We then drove the 3.5 hours out of Saline Valley and on to Furnace Creek (paved road, yay!). At Furnace Creek we camped one more night, then returned back to Fairfield on Friday.

Lessons Learned
1. Always remember to reset the grid square locator on the software that controls the doppler correction! The first day I was really having to "fight" the computer control of the radios to get the tuning correct, and only after the pass realized that the netbook computer still thought we were in Fairfield!

2. Be sure to manually reset the computer clock from WWV every day. My netbook time drifted 10 seconds in two days, and this was enough to throw off the doppler correction quite a bit.

3. It would have been handy to bring my HT radio along -- the twin FT-817 setup takes about 10 minutes to put together, making it just a bit inconvenient for side-of-the-road stops to work the FM sats. Since the Yaesu FT-530 full duplex dual-band HT and an Elk antenna work so well, if I had that along with me, I might have made some more roadside stops to do quick FM bird contacts.

4. The Spot Messenger worked well -- it recorded almost all track points and also sent out emails letting others at home know we were safe each night. It has the advantage of working where cell phones (and APRS tracking) don't work, especially in this remote part of the country.

Thank you
Thanks to everyone for making contacts, and the help and chat along the way! I really appreciate it. Special thanks as well to Mike WA6ARA for posting details of my trip on the amsat-bb list, it was good to hear other stations I worked who had been following our progress!