The Nov.-Dec. 2010 edition of the National Contest Journal ran a profile feature about me. Well, written by me and expertly edited by Tom Menas K3WT.
Here’s the story….
The typical “NCJ Profiles” subject is a contester with a top gun station and/or a prominent place in the rankings. This month we offer a variation on the theme that may serve as a primer for those in the middle of the pack. Hailing from South Central British Columbia — known for its orchards and vineyards — Bud Mortenson, VA7ST, has a relatively modest station and employs a smorgasbord approach to contesting. He loves to sample any and all contests and takes relatively small portions of each. He’s a big gun in terms of operating frequency, though, and I’m confident that many of you will find his tale of interest.
Tom Menas, K3WT
A Bolt from Thor
Those long 3830 posts from VA7ST can be blamed on a sunburned crew of adventurers riding an ocean wave. The radio exploits of the 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition fascinated me when I read Thor Heyerdahl’s book as a 10-year-old kid in New Zealand. Heyerdahl and his crew spent 101 days sailing a raft of balsa logs from Peru to Polynesia, connected to the world via ham radio using the call sign LI2B.
For a while I entertained fanciful boyish notions of building a raft myself and bobbing across the Pacific, taking Grampa’s 1960s-era CB radio along. That was in 1975, and a year later I did cross the Pacific — when our family moved from New Zealand to Canada. I left behind Grampa and his radio set and the idea of going to sea, but the romance of DX was already in me, courtesy of LI2B.
One day in 1980, while helping neighbors clean out an old shed, I found a barely functional portable shortwave receiver and, seeing my delight, they gave it to me. I began logging the stations I heard, thrilled to hear Kiwi accents again on Radio New Zealand, and picking up signals from faraway places completely unfamiliar to me.
That same year, after mentioning this shortwave listening at school, I discovered that two of my teachers were hams (Gordon Davis, VE7QL, and Ron Taylor, VE7DKV). My best friend Scott Sheppard caught the ham bug right along with me.
Not Kon-Tiki, But . . .
My first “contest” experience wasn’t really a contest at all, but it was a defining event for a 15-year-old eager to become a ham. The Orchard City Amateur Radio Club’s June 1981 ARRL Field Day station was set up on a paddle-wheeler named Fintry Queen on Okanagan Lake, at Kelowna, British Columbia. Knowing I was interested in ham radio, my mom drove me into the city to see the station, and the guys asked me to stay and operate all night.
In the warm glow of a transceiver’s front panel at 3 AM, I found myself talking with hams all over the continent — from a boat! It wasn’t Kon-Tiki, but I remember a moment of sheer contented joy and grinning like a fool. I knew I had found “the thing” for me.
[In May 2016, I ran across an audio recording from that summer of 1981 — local AM radio interviews with three of the fellows who were part of my first hands-on exposure to ham radio at the 1981 Field Day. Bob Southern VE7AMY, Ken Berg VE7KEN, and Jim Spurway VE7JIM spoke with Therese Elvis on CKOV (“OV63” — Kelowna’s first AM broadcast station). Bob was a great proponent of amateur radio. Ken at the time was very keen on OSCAR satellite work — he set up an OSCAR station in City Park near the paddle-wheeler to show the public what it was all about, and Jim was instrumental in building the local club’s VHF repeater system. What a walk down memory lane to a wonderful era and great guys.]
Ham Radio-Crazed Teens
Firmly hooked and with most of my waking moments dominated by thoughts of ham radio, I studied hard and learned the code, and in April 1982, I passed the exams. It’s the only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever actually kept (or remembered). I was assigned the call sign VE7EIE. Dit-di-dit-dit is a quick suffix in CW, which remains my mode of preference to this day. Scott received VE7EKT (he’s now VA3IED), and in that first year two ham-crazy 16-year-olds burned up 10 meter SSB with our cross-town chats well into the wee hours many nights.
Local contester and great mentor Denny Warner, VE7ASY, invited Scott and me to join him for a VHF contest on a mountain top. We had a ton of fun in our first-ever real contest, operating in a cloud-wrapped forestry lookout hut, living on hot dogs and Coke, dodging lightning strikes and rising to Denny’s enthusiastic encouragement to make contacts using the big 2 meter Yagis he’d brought along.
Joining the Majors
I operated in a few major CW contests in those early years, and with the sponge-like learning ability of a motivated teenager, I became a CW hound in a hurry. Eventually college, traipsing around the South Pacific and, later, starting a family kept me off the air for the most part, although during a brief resurgence of radio activity in 1987 I picked up the call sign VE7ASK.
In 1990 I arrived home from our honeymoon with my lovely wife Kim and a used (and sorta lovely) Kenwood TS-430S. I puttered around on the air once in a while, but work as a newspaper editor and little kids in the house meant I didn’t get back on the air regularly for another 12 years. That changed with a long-distance phone chat with Scott in 2002. He told me how much fun this new PSK mode was.
That very night, I jury-rigged wires to hook up my little TS-430S to the computer and worked a few PSK contacts on 20 meters. What a blast! With just 10 W I was working all over, using a rather deaf ground-mounted vertical!
Within days, I had raised a half-sized G5RV for 40 through 10 to supplement my Hy-Gain 80 through 10 meter vertical. I tried my first-ever RTTY contest — ANARTS — in June 2002. I placed second in VE7 and never looked back. Eager to improve my station, I bought a Yaesu FT-920 in 2003 as my first-ever brand-new radio, tossed a 102 foot G5RV over a couple of young maple trees, and away I went.
From the Middle of the Pack or Further Back
I am a CW and RTTY operator, although I have also taken some interest in phone contests over the past couple of years. The contesting I enjoy today is a pleasurable mixture of DXing, handing out an at-times rare multiplier (BC, VE7) and station building. The ’tests themselves are proving grounds for antenna experiments and often opportunities to build my DXCC totals. I take a rather indiscriminate approach: Work everyone I can, and the rare ones will be in there too.
I will never be in the Top 10 box. There are plenty of operators with more drive, raw talent, money and time than I could ever apply. So, I focus on what I can achieve: Get better at the controls, make smart and cost-effective station-building decisions and improve my scores from one year to the next. In solar minima this has been a challenge, but generally I have managed to do it.
In 2002, my first year of contesting, I made 3329 contacts in 21 contests. I wanted more. Realizing the deficiencies of a location at the base of a high ridge prompted me to convince the family that we needed more space as, according to the calendar and food budget, our two sons were about to become teenagers.
So, using terrain analysis software (and my wife’s yearning for a bigger garden) to shortlist properties for sale at the time, I found a one-acre parcel of land on a ridge across town, thoughtfully equipped with tall Ponderosa pines for wires of all kinds. We sold our house and moved into the new place in April 2004.
From our backyard, the ground falls off about 300 feet to the valley bottom nearby — a great terrain advantage for working Europe, North America and South America. Since moving to the new place, my station capabilities and my contesting enjoyment have soared.
Over the past eight years I’ve played in more than 425 contests (update: more than 750 by 2016), carefully interleaving this activity between kids’ hockey road trips, family barbecues, work and incessant lawn mowing.
Keeping monthly contact totals helps me to gauge whether I’m gaining or losing year over year station-wise. The average has gone from 416 a month in 2002 to more than 1700 a month this year (see the year-by-year stats).
I’ll operate 50 or more events in a year, often casual entries and all graciously approved by my wife under a “work hard, play hard” policy (we avid contesters earn our time in the chair). Not once have I regretted getting on the air, but I sure have regretted not getting on. With that much time on task, you get to know almost intuitively where to be, and when to be there.
My station now includes a Yaesu FT-2000, a very modest 40 foot crank-up, tilt-over MA-40 tubular tower with a 3 element SteppIR Yagi (plus 40 meter dipole) and an updated Heathkit SB-221 amp for special occasions. Perhaps most important for operating in a diversity of contests is having a wide variety of wire antennas. The SteppIR is an agile primary for 40 through 10, but there are also 80 meter twin verticals, a 40 meter twin half-square array, a short 270 foot Beverage and a 160 meter inverted L that has never worked much DX. I acquired the call VA7ST in June 2003 as a “CW accelerator.”
I am a chronic, albeit mechanically inept, antenna builder, and, thanks to the tall pines I’ve tried most of the wire designs I’ve run across. While our backyard is bigger than a typical city lot, it’s only 90 feet wide, so that limits what I’m able to raise into the air for the low bands. The best bang for my much-squeezed contesting buck? Half-squares for 40 and wire verticals for 80. Alas, the wind here doesn’t let much alone, and eventually it’s experiment time all over again. But I don’t mind. It’s all a learning experience.
Contester to Journalist
Ham radio has been a wonderful teacher. As so many of us have experienced, it enriches and shapes our lives in ways we can never predict. My interest in radios and DXing got me interested in computers, which drew me into learning how to use Compugraphic typesetting equipment for my college newspaper, which made me as indispensable as Tums and blue pencils at a “real” newspaper.
And that opened the door to turning a writing compulsion into paychecks and an enduring career. I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to learn journalism the hard way — on the job, in the crucible of local politics, fence wars and kindergarten graduations.
I eventually became editor of our community newspaper, and we built it into one of the best papers of its size in Canada by the time I left in 1999. From there, I worked as director of marketing for a public company during the dot-com heyday. All of that transferred nicely to my current role as manager of public affairs for the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, where I’ve been since the campus opened in 2005.
In my off-hours, I volunteer with a local society working to establish a new community-run FM broadcast station. Recently I took over maintaining the British Columbia DX Club’s Web site, www.bcdxc.org, created and nurtured for the past decade by retiring webmaster Paul Peters, VE7BZ.
Contesting’s the Thing
I find some contest or another to play in most weekends. It’s great decompression time, even if only for an hour or two. I just get on and do it, well aware that I am in good company with so many others trying to do their best with less-than-the-best setups.
Being on a team for the NAQPs pushes me to stay in the chair. Multiplexed free time leaves me most comfortable as a single op at home. That way I can only disappoint myself, if some diversion drags me away. Multiop opportunities from here require significant travel, though I did thoroughly enjoy being a guest operator when Duane Sandmeyer, VE7UF, and my contest coach Jim Smith, VE7FO, invited me to operate the 2009 CQ WPX CW with them from Duane’s beautiful and growing multiop station on Vancouver Island.
I have formed many fine ham radio friendships over the years with fellows like Ed Richardson, VE4EAR, Dan Murphy, K7IA, and others who share a passion for contesting from the trenches (yes, Dan is literally in a New Mexico canyon). I have enjoyed the camaraderie of so many fellow contesters — people like Gary, VE1RGB, Robby, VY2SS, and Rich, VA1CHP, who often join me and VE4EAR on the Aurora Busters team we established for the NAQPs — not to mention the contest buddies I’ve gained through the Northern California Contest Club’s frenetic Thursday night sprints (hi, all)!
Most of us live in the popular domain of the also-rans, and we jump in undeterred by this. We set goals just beyond our reach, pursue them by wringing everything we can from the stations we have and dream of what may come. Whether a top gun or popgun, turning on the radio to hear a band in full flight, knowing that we are among friends and welcome, is a pleasure difficult to describe to others. But we know it, every time.
That Novice kid grinning in the dial glow at 3 AM still knows. It is “the thing” for me. A fairly complete list of my contest activity from 2002 on is online at www.va7st.ca/contest_scores.htm.
Thanks, Bud, for the fascinating narrative explaining your contesting philosophy. We’re now in the peak of the contesting season as fall and winter give us more indoor time. So, if your lifestyle keeps you from spending large blocks of time in specific contests, try the method that Bud employs during this contest season and sample the fare widely. See you on the bands!