DXpeditioning is always an educational activity. Not only from the radio operations perspective where you always learn something new about propagation, logistics, antenna layout, etc…, but DXpeditioning also has other lessons to teach. In fact it is the unique character of the places you operate from that present the most intrigue of a trip to a rare radio destination. It is the location or community or country that separates one DXpedition versus another. It is these new experiences that draw me to DXpeditioning. If you want to learn to operate radio from a portable set-up, you can probably learn most of what you need to know at Field Day. But the full personal value of a DXpedition lies in the experience of the trip. Our trip to BattleIsland, Labrador, NA-044, was a great experience. We had fun on the radio and hone our expeditioning skills, but we also learned about a part of the world that we had never experienced before.
The expedition to Battle Island, NA-044, was a father and son affair. Michael, AB5EB and myself, Mike AD5A, made up the expedition team. IOTA expeditioning is something that we enjoy doing together and helps to satisfy our need for adventure. This expedition was the ninth we have done together.
So why go to Battle Island? The process we use to decide where we want to go for an expedition consists of three questions. The first consideration is, of course, the rarity of island. We want to go somewhere that is needed. The second consideration is accessibility. We need to be able to get on and off the island around a long weekend. Neither of our schedules is conducive to long periods off from work. The third consideration is; do we need it? This process led us to the Battle Island. Battle Island lies at 52:19N, 55:28W and is nine miles offshore from Mary’s Harbour which is a small village on the southern coast of Labrador and is designated by the IOTA program as the Newfoundland Province (Labrador) South group, NA-044. The island was needed, officially, by more than 89% of island chasers. Experience has taught us however that there are many more active IOTA chasers out there than the official records indicate. As an additional attraction for this expedition, we would also be operating from Zone 2 so we were comfortable that we would have a sizeable audience waiting for us when we commenced the operation.
When looking at the logistics if getting to Battle Harbour, you soon understand why the island is rarely activated. Getting to Battle Harbour was quite an experience for us and was probably the most tiring trip we have taken to put on an island. The first logistical problem is that Michael lives in Syracuse, NY where he is doing his residency in Emergency Medicine. I live in Boerne, TX, near San Antonio. The evening before our departure, I flew to Syracuse with most of the station equipment while Michael worked until midnight at the hospital. Our schedule required us to be on the road by 5:30 am for a 4.5 hour drive to Toronto where we would begin our eastward trek toward Labrador. We wearily arose that Thursday morning after a very short night, but the excitement of our journey helped to lighten our steps as we loaded Michael’s pick-up with the luggage and equipment.
We made the drive to Toronto in plenty of time to catch our flight to St. John’s, Newfoundland. From there we took a 19 passenger plane from St. John’s to Blanc Sablon, Quebec. Blanc Sablon is 100 miles south of Mary’s Harbour, Labrador where we were scheduled to spend Thursday night. We were to be picked up there by Margaret Pye, who was the Assistant Manager of the Battle Harbour Historical Trust and our primary contact in setting up the trip. We arrived at 9:00 p.m… Michael had warned Margaret that we would have a lot of luggage and so we assumed that Margaret would bring an appropriate sized vehicle. We were wrong. Not fully understanding the luggage requirements of a DXpedition, she brought her compact size vehicle and at first glance my reaction was that we would not be able to get everything in the car. However, with Margaret’s “can do” attitude and after lowering the back seat we were able to squeeze everything in, with Michael sitting in a small space in the back with his nose pressed against the window.
The drive to Mary’s Harbour is very interesting. The first half of the drive is along the coastline, up and down the coastal hills of Labrador and around many curves. The last half of the 3 hour drive is on a dirt road. About halfway through the drive, Margaret, feeling sorry for Michael, allowed him to drive while she took the small space in the back. As we drove in the darkness, there was not much to see except the occasional small fishing village and the near zero visibility fog. The dirt road starts at the village of Red Bay and once on this super highway of dirt roads, the only life we saw was an arctic fox that we nearly hit with the car. We arrived in Mary’s Harbour at 1:00 am. It had been a long day. We found a hotel room at “The River Inn” and settled in for a needed nights sleep. We were scheduled to catch an 11:00 am boat out to Battle Island the following morning. At least we would get to sleep in.
After a good night’s sleep and a nice breakfast the next morning we were anxious to get on the island. Getting to Battle Harbor requires a nine mile boat ride from the dock at Mary’s Harbor. We boarded a converted fishing boat that travelled at a maximum speed of nine mph. For a couple of Texan’s this was an interesting ride; having to navigate the icebergs that have drifted hundreds of miles into the harbor from Greenland. After an hour on the boat we arrived at our destination, Battle Harbour, 28 hours after our departure from Syracuse.
Our destination was the once abandoned fishing village of Battle Harbour which is a National Historic Site of Canada. There has been a settlement here for more than 200 years. The original town was abandoned when the Canadian government issued a moratorium on cod fishing off their coastal waters in the early nineties. Seasonal residents never returned after the fishing ban. The last permanent residents of Battle Harbour were relocated by the government between 1965 and 1970. The Battle Harbour Historic Trust has taken possession of much of the former settlement and has restored many of the old buildings to their original new condition. There is the Battle Harbour Inn (a five room hotel), a general store, several residences and other buildings that have been restored. We stayed in and operated from the Grenfell Cottage that was the former residence of a notable doctor who resided on the island in the late 19th and early 20th century. As part of our package we also received three home cooked meals a day served in the dining room of the Battle Harbour Inn. The food was excellent and each meal provided interesting conversation with each day’s new visitors. Information on the island and accommodations can be obtained by visiting the website at www.battleharbour.com .
Upon our arrival we were met at the dock by several members of the staff on the island who took our luggage and delivered it to our cottage. The temperature was 45F when we arrived with a light blowing rain. For a June day, this was cold weather to us. We were then directed to the dining room at the Inn where we were served a nice warm lunch. Anxiously we ate lunch and as graciously as possible excused ourselves so that we could get the station up and running.
There are always surprises on a DXpedition and big surprises for us were the two 150 foot radio towers on the island that were remnants of an old Marconi station that operated on the island dated back to the early 20th century. These towers were directly behind our cottage. The steps have been removed that would allow a person to climb to the top, but the towers harkened our imaginations back to time when wireless communications was the state of art in technology. It was from Battle Island that Robert Peary, the famous arctic explorer, announced to the world that he had made it to the North Pole. He stayed on the island for several days following that historic expedition. We were bringing modern day radio back to a place where it literally touched radio history.
The weather on the island never changed much while we were there. We had about 30 minutes of sunshine on Saturday afternoon. Otherwise it was overcast with light, blowing rain. At one time we thought the 33’ push up pole would be toppled by the wind. We had to make a trip up the hill where we had the antenna set-up at dusk to reinforce the guys to prevent it from being blown over. It is obvious that this part of the world can be a hostile place to live weather wise. We were told that the entire island is iced-in during the winter months. The temperature never got out of the 40’sF during our stay.
We did take some time to tour the island when the bands were dead. There were a couple of cemeteries on the island with tombstones dating back to the early 19th century. We stood on the foundation of the old Marconi station and let our imagination take us back to the days when “wireless” was something very special. We watched as icebergs floated past the island wondering how big they really were and how long they had been afloat. We walked through the restored community of Battle Harbour and envisioned the bustling fishing community that it once was, complete with its own hospital. We also wondered if we would have ever enjoyed such an interesting place had it not been for ham radio. This was truly a delightful expedition.
For our radio operation we wanted to operate two stations without the inter-station interference that plagued our last expedition to NA-013. So we used band filters for the first time to eliminate this interference. We used the ICE single band filters with good success. Our operating positions were not more than 20’ apart and we were able to run the amplifiers with minimal problem. The two stations consisted of a Yaesu FT100D, Yaesu FT857D, two home brew solid state amplifiers (300 – 400 watts output), Force 12 Sigma 5 vertical (20m,17m,15m,12m,10m), DK9SQ folded vertical (80m – 10m) on a 33’ fiberglass push up pole, automatic antenna tuner and all the related DX – pedition paraphernalia. We were forced to put the antenna’s up in the blowing rain, but somehow it was bearable.
We were on the air by 19:30z on Friday, June 18, 2004. Both stations came up almost simultaneously on 17m and 20m. The deserving were waiting on us despite some marginal conditions. . We used VO2/AD5A on CW and VO2/AB5EB on SSB. The first QSO was with K7DZ on 17m CW. Our initial QSO rates were 157, 156 and 212 per hour for the first three hours and so we settled into the operation.
We knew going into this operation that propagation in the northern latitudes can be problematic. We had some forgettable experiences on two expeditions to Alaska in the mid – 90’s were we called CQ endlessly with no success. So for this trip we used the W6EL propagation program to help us predict openings so that we could be on the air if at all possible when openings to difficult parts of the world occurred. The toughest path from VO2 is Japan since it is a totally polar path. The propagation predictions pointed to 1000z – 1100z on 20m as the best possible opening. We had received several emails from JA hams wanting QSO’s with us both for IOTA and Zone 2 QSO’s. On Saturday morning the opening just wasn’t there. The All Asia contest was being held that weekend and I tuned the band and heard no JA contest stations. I also called CQ with no luck. The opportunity for a few JA QSO’s didn’t look good. The following morning I tried again. I tuned across the 20m CW band listening for JA’s in the contest. This time they were there. I found an open frequency and called CQ at 10:15z. Ten minutes later after a few QSO’s, JA1QXY made it into the log followed by JR7TEQ. Over the next 45 minutes we logged 35 JA’s. For the entire expedition we were able to work a total of 60 JA’s, which given the conditions, we were happy about. The conditions to EU and NA were not great, but good enough to keep the pile-ups steady.
The QSO totals met our expectations. Given the unpredictability of propagation from the northern latitudes we set 2,000 QSO’s as a goal. We ended the expedition at 2332z on June 20, 2004 with QSO number 3,012 with SP5AKG. We operated for a little more than 38 hours.
The majority of the QSO’s were with Europe representing 58.3% of the total, while NA accounted for 35.8%. The mode split for the QSO’s were 62% CW and 38% SSB.
While our boat trip to the island was on the slow boat, our trip back to the mainland was anything but slow. The Manager of the island took us back on a Boston Whaler at speed of 20 – 25 mph. For those not familiar with this type of boat, it is an open boat. We were given some insulated clothes to wear but the wind was very cold as we sped through the ice cold water. After only 20 minutes on the water, we were back at the dock in Mary’s Harbour. It was time to start our trip home and start thinking about the next one.