ENRICO STUMPF-SIERING DL2VFR
Back in 2001 we thought about activating a rare IOTA somewhere in the north. Our expeditions are usually to Scandinavia, so at first we focused on that area. But seeing as most European IOTAs are far from being ‘rare ones’ we looked even further north and ended up in Greenland.
Initially we toyed with idea of going to an unnumbered group. For example, why not activate Greenland’s North East Coastal Islands? So we looked into how to get there and what would be needed. At a very early stage we realised that going to such a place would probably be something for a larger group – or as part of a regular scientific expedition. You would need to have additional insurance in case of emergency, also guns and other equipment etc. – as well as food, water, electricity and the approval of the local authorities. We would have to apply at least one year in advance for permission to go to the nature reserve in Greenland’s north-eastern territory. And of course it would be very expensive. So we stopped dreaming and started drafting plans for something more realistic.
After plenty of research, also on the Internet, we finally found a suitable island group: Greenland’s South West Coastal Islands. This island group was activated briefly in 2000 and numbered NA-220. With a confirmation rate of only 8% it was definitely on the ‘most wanted’ list. This is what we’d been looking for. It seemed to us that Maniitsoq [Sukkertoppen] was fairly easy to get to by plane, seeing as they’d built an airfield there in 1999. The population of 3,000 was also a good indication of the likely facilities there. On the Internet we’d read about a hotel, a seamen’s home and some cheap hostels besides, also daily flights and permanent electricity. Not the sort of thing you’d perhaps expect in an area just below the Arctic Circle and known as a desert of ice and rocks!
Our plans were gradually taking shape, but in 2002 we had to give priority to other projects such as trips to Belize, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Then at the beginning of 2003 NA-220 was reported as being 12,4% confirmed. So not a rare one any more, but still rare enough. It was high time to get back to this project and go to the island now. We contacted the local tourist board and made some inquiries. After a few weeks we received more detailed information from Maniitsoq and had an extensive look at maps of the area. Radio-wise, what would our take-off be like from there? Where could we locate our antennas? What would the best QTH be? Here we made use of a lot of photographs found on the local websites.
Based on our experience in the Arctic, we decided to take amplifiers with us as well as vertical antennas. Propagation would be not very easy from there. And this time we would have to use a plane to get to our expedition site, so we would be limited as to the amount of luggage we could take.
It wasn’t that complicated to find an airline flying to Greenland and ultimately Maniitsoq. There was only one: Greenland Air. With tears in our eyes we looked at the ticket prices quoted by the travel agencies and also on the Internet. The cheapest way to get to our destination was to buy the tickets direct in Copenhagen. But they were still expensive, so for one moment we thought about flying – for the same price – First Class to the South Pacific. But then everybody could do that!
And what would be the best time to go? In order to save money we decided against the summer. The winter would have probably been better for the lower bands, but the weather could be bad and a possible problem when putting up our antennas. Last but not least, the flight conditions could be bad and prevent us from reaching the island in the first place. So we decided to go in late April/the beginning of May. We would still have a sufficient period of darkness to operate on the lower bands – and the weather would be comparable to our winter.
For accommodation we chose the seamen’s home – much cheaper than the hotel, but still a big item in our financial plan. When we enquired about a room we also asked some ‘unusual’ questions about space for antennas, the type of mains plugs, the buildings and mountains round about. We also said that we were planning on doing some ‘ionospheric studies’. These questions were duly answered and we were allocated Room 4 for our 12-day stay. We were also given the address of the local telecommunications authority. After all, they said, it would be a good idea to check with them about our ‘ionospheric’ plans. Eventually, as requested, we received a special call, but we still had to apply for an official licence. We couldn’t quite understand why this was, seeing as OX is a CEPT country, but it was still nice to have an official document from ‘Qaqortoq, Kaalaliit Nunaat’ (Julianehaab, Greenland) with our names and callsigns on it. Maybe the staff at the seamen’s home would be less excited about our strange activities now!
At the beginning of 2004 NA-220 was up to 13,1% confirmed. It was our task to change that. We started to get our equipment together and practised putting up antennas in Arctic-like conditions. It was about -5° C and we were only using a ‘Leatherman’ and a simple knife. We chose a Butternut HF6 and a Sigma 40XK to taken with us into the cold. They would be quite easy to set up and should work well together with our two IC-706s and FinnFet amplifier.
Our plan was a) to give as many people as possible a new IOTA and b) to provide as many extra band points as possible. When we announced our plans we received a lot of requests for 160m and RTTY. So we thought about it. For RTTY we would need a laptop. Originally, to help reduce the weight of our luggage, we had planned to use paper logs. And would there be a chance to work Top Band? Indeed we would be happy enough if we had some openings on 80m! The Arctic, of course, is well known for polar cap absorption, aurora effects and very short nights at around this time. But we set everything up for both – RTTY and 160m, where we hoped we’d be in with a chance.
The next problem was packing everything and making sure that we would be able to carry the weight. The transceivers, amplifiers and antennas were of course a ‘must’. And we would need warm clothes. But maybe we could we leave the razor at home!
With it now spring time in Germany, we left for the big block of ice somewhere to the north-west – and back to winter! We got the train to Copenhagen and spent the night there. Then early the next morning, 23 April, our plane took off in the direction of Kangerlussuaq [in Danish: Søndre Strømfjord]. We eventually arrived there with our 80 kgs of luggage, an ex-US military base in the middle of nowhere. But it’s also something of a hub for every Greenland destination. After a short stopover it was then on to Maniitsoq Island. But the plane had a technical problem and so the start of our expedition was delayed for a few hours. But at least the weather was fine: 3° C and clear sky.
When we finally arrived on Maniitsoq Island and had our first look around, we realised how appropriate the Inuit name for the island is. ‘Maniitsoq’ means ‘uneven’ and we found ourselves surrounded by rocks and a lot of snow. In between all this: wooden houses of different sizes connected by large steps and also larger buildings of up to six or seven floors. It was like being in Denmark, but without the green and the trees. Here it was just rocks and stones.
Our home for the next 12 days was a far cry from what the average tourist looks forward to. In the harbour and the fishing industry there are not enough jobs to go round. The Maniitsoq Kommunea covers an area as large as Bavaria. The nearest big ‘cities’ are at least one hour’s flying time away. Everything needs to be imported by sea. Denmark still takes care of most things, but Greenland is becoming increasingly independent. The main language is Greenlandic [Inuit], but it is very difficult to learn and understand. You still hear Danish everywhere. Nowadays Denmark is only responsible for foreign affairs and defence. A lot of the more specialised work is still carried out by Danes who stay there only for a couple of months or years. Since May 1984 Kalaallit Nunaat [Greenland] has been self-governing and is no longer a member of the EU. Its population of 56,000 sometimes has to contend with fairly harsh conditions. Nevertheless, the standard of living is comparable to that of any small Danish town.
On first having a look around while unloading our luggage at the seamen’s home we were not very optimistic. We were only about 200m from the water, but surrounded by higher buildings and mountains. Nigh on useless for DX! Also there was hardly anywhere to put up antennas – and children were playing everywhere.
So we started looking around for an alternative. Up by the hotel we spotted a suitable area, but this was too close to TV antennas and a mobile phone mast. But how about the helicopter landing site? This had an unused building next to it and would be ideal for the Butternut. It was owned by Greenland Air, but on a Friday evening it was impossible to contact anybody in charge. Eventually we found somebody who could help – at our seamen’s home. Per, the concierge, was a friendly person and understood our problems straight away. He seemed to be quite interested in people with a rather unusual hobby – people like us who go to islands in the middle of nowhere and contact other people called ‘hams’ from there. He gave us the keys to an old house next door to the hostel, but situated some 30m higher up. The only thing we would have to do is take care of the heating. On our first inspection we became more optimistic about the antennas and the rooms were perfect for us. But where was the electricity? The house was obviously not connected to the mains. Unfortunately there was no way of getting the electricity switched on before Monday morning – and even that seemed rather over-optimistic to us.
So we went back to the seamen’s home and looked for a way to at least get on the air until we could find a better QTH. We eventually found a suitable place for the Sigma 40XK, on a little mound of snow, and at first started operating with only 100W because we were expecting interference with power lines and TV antennas close by. But nothing happened, so we launched into the long-awaited pile-up – and later started using the amplifier.
The only thing that was as bad as we’d expected was the ionosphere. Most of the time only one band was open – very occasionally two. For four to five hours in the morning and also in the evening we could hear nothing at all. So most of our activity was during the night, all depending on band openings. We met up for breakfast and dinner and discussed the propagation, seeing as at these times the bands were closed anyway. If you couldn’t hear us on the air we were definitely not sunning ourselves on the beach!
In fact we came to compare working the pile-ups from there to cutting a field of very short grass with a very small pair of scissors. From time to time a strong wind would come blowing over this field of stations calling and make it impossible to cut any of the grass at all. It was a sound like that of a waterfall and this blotted out everything for several seconds to several minutes. At times we were no doubt putting out a good signal, but it was impossible to hear everybody calling us. So we tended to start by working some of the very loud North American stations – located just down the road, as it were!
On changing our QTH on the Monday things got a lot better. As promised, electricity was laid on and we started to put up our antennas again. Once again the snow became our friend. We put the Butternut together and buried the base deep in the 2½ metres of snow on top of the bare rocks. An excellent base for our purposes! We tuned the Sigma 40XK for 17m. All other bands were covered by the HF6.
During the night 40 and 30m were usable most of the time. During the day we had some good and long openings on 17m – much better than we had expected – and also on 20m of course. Although we had originally expected it to be the other way round. We occasionally had some short openings on 15m, but on the higher frequencies you couldn’t hear a sausage. It was virtually the same on the lower bands. After hours of calling and a lot of skeds we finally had some 50 QSOs in the log on 80m. Every contact on that band was not only a great success, but hard work too. We didn’t make any QSOs on 160m. No wonder. Our semi-dark nights only lasted for about four hours!
We worked all continents, with Europe in first place before North America. However, it was very difficult to work Japan – and then only via the long path. Although we had planned to operate mainly in our favourite mode, CW, we sometimes had good signals from EU and NA which allowed us to operate SSB or RTTY for those who needed these modes.
And at the end of our time on Maniitsoq we had to contend with a new effect: man-made noise. Greetings from Thule Airbase some 100 miles north? But by that time the conditions were going down rapidly anyway. Indeed back home in Germany we heard that on 1 May there had been a coronal mass ejection (a C 9.5 flare) together with coronal hole 94. Even after the event, that sounded disastrous. The other kind of weather we had was very much what central Europeans would call winter. Only two really sunny days, plus two severe snowstorms. The Greenlanders call this spring time!
We closed down on the afternoon of 5 May with more than 7,000 contacts in the log. After dismantling the stations we returned home the following morning via Copenhagen, arriving the next day in northern Germany – wearing clothes which were far too warm, but happy to be back home.
In the year of the FSDXA’s mammoth 3B9C expedition we were, of course, only a small event on the DX and IOTA scene. Compared to our two-man kayak in Greenland, 3B9C was a huge Viking ship with two dozen rowers or more. Nevertheless we provided a lot of people with contacts – and QSL cards as well. Last but not least, it was a great adventure for us and one day, when our bank balances have recovered, we look forward to going off again to a new island. We’ll see you in the pile-up!
Finally it’s thank to our sponsors, the GDXF, IREF and DARC Publishing, for their support – and of course thanks to our wives for their patience.