Note: This story appeared in the Jan.-Feb. 2023 edition of the ARRL’s National Contest Journal.
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
From “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert W. Service
By Bud Mortenson, VA7ST
If you want maximum radio fun, go north young man. Go north!
Canada’s Northern Territories (NT) are a perennially rare multiplier in the ARRL Sweepstakes contests. So, naturally I jumped at the opportunity to head north nearly 1,000 miles from my southern British Columbia home to Whitehorse, Yukon, to run in the 2022 November CW Sweepstakes.
Scott Sheppard, VY1CO has a wonderful station in his home about 40 minutes’ drive north of Whitehorse. His high-elevation property is on a hill not far from the western “marge of Lake Lebarge,” as poet Robert Service called it.
Scott and I have been close friends ever since we got our ham tickets as 14-year-olds in high school back in the early ‘80s. We often talked about getting together for a contest, and with Scott moving to Yukon to take up duties as the RCMP commanding officer several years ago, it was almost inevitable that we would converge on a CW Sweepstakes to hand out the NT multiplier.
In our initial planning, we had envisioned operating the contest in “rustic” mode from a cozy new cabin Scott has built about 400 feet from the house. It’s not quite finished but is comfy and warm — we had a few ice-cold beverages out there in the wee hours after Scott picked me up from my late-night arrival at Erik Nielson International in Whitehorse.
We reminisced and plotted, sitting by a crackling wood stove with a thready band of Northern Lights glowing in the sky and an Arctic wind pushing against the trees outside. A large retriever/husky named Grizzly snoozed at our feet as we listened to one of Scott’s venerable Ten-Tec Omnis tuned to a 75M late-night ragchew net. Two lads and a radio. And a big, weatherproof dog.
On Friday afternoon, Scott’s neighbor Allen Wootton, VY1KX, stopped in for a visit in the cabin, and we had a great chat around the wood stove. Allen regularly puts Yukon on the air for contests. We hadn’t seen each other since the Pacific Northwest DX Convention in Vancouver more than four years ago, and it was wonderful to catch up on things.
Once Scott has run a spool of low-loss coax from the cabin up to his tower near the house, it will be a great shack in the woods for future contest operations any time of year. He’s planning to create a destination ham adventure location – the rustic shack, ham radio and all the picturesque aurora borealis you’d ever want to see.
For this contest weekend, we ended up opting for the main radio room in the house, with expansive views of majestic snow-clad Yukon mountains and some operating redundancy — a choice of amplifiers, should one fail. Our primary setup was a Kenwood TS-590SG and an Elecraft KPA500 amplifier, with a two-element hex beam at 65’ for 15M and 20M, and an 80M ladder-line fed doublet for the lower bands (and 10M as it turned out).
Our plan was to operate a very simple multi-single, with Scott keeping an eye on the cluster spots while I ran stations on whichever band was producing the best rate. We didn’t intend to aggressively chase multipliers as we knew everyone would be looking for us, but as insurance we kept a close eye on the spots so we could land the rare ones as early as possible.
For us, 15M turned out to be the money band providing more than half of all our QSOs. We hit the air on 15M right at the bell at 2100z Saturday. The pileup hit about 30 seconds – or two CQs — later, when we were spotted the first time, and continued for hours.
This is what we were looking forward to – endless stations to work, all eager to get us in the log. But rather than fill the log with hundreds of Qs, the pileups were so intense it was difficult to pull single CW elements, let alone a full call, from the clamor.
About a third of our completed contacts involved one or two repeats until they copied everything through the persistent calling on top of us. We assumed some stations were clicking on our spot and blinding calling even if they couldn’t hear us well.
The action was great fun, but it meant progress was frustratingly slow. The profusion of callers allowed us to work only one or two stations per minute. We learned to bail out if things got too out of hand and pop up somewhere else on the band for a fresh start. Four or five callers at a time seemed to be the sweet spot for making good rate; 10 or 20 callers all zero-beat was like slogging through deep snow.
The NT mult is indeed a rare one. There were very happy high-fives when we worked Rich VE3KI operating the VY1AAA station remotely (the station is at J’s home at VY1JA just down the Klondike Highway from VY1CO – yes, all three Yukon operations this weekend were within a few miles of one another). Then we added Allen VY1KX, so NT from Yukon was nicely represented and should not have been an impediment to getting a clean sweep this year. We sure enjoyed hearing stations letting us know we were their last one for the sweep.
Despite being spotted several times every minute, we had many long pauses in activity – calling CQ for five or 10 minutes with no takers. Scott was monitoring the reverse beacon network reports, and we were being heard well, but the dreaded doldrums had set in on Saturday evening, and on Sunday they were even more pronounced.
We had expected to stay on the air until 11 p.m. local on the first night, but by 10 p.m. we found 40M was simply not playing well. With few callers finding us, we pulled the plug for the night with 83 of 84 mults in the log. We had not heard a VO1 NL station all day.
Looking at the Space Weather Prediction Center’s auroral forecasts, we could see the aurora building on Saturday evening, but it didn’t seem to be an issue for us until we were back on the air at 4:30 a.m. Sunday morning. 40M sounded like someone had put a pillow over it.
Sure enough, a strong auroral oval was on top of us and sweeping far to the southeast, producing absorption effects we could not work through. So we took nearly three more hours of off-time and came back once 20M and 15M were back in play and the aurora had subsided enough to make QSOs again.
Scott noticed VO1HP spotted on 10M. While I continued to run on 15M, he readied the big doublet so we could switch to it and try for our final multiplier and complete the clean sweep. We made the band change, tuned to where Frank was working a large pileup, and listened for our chance to work him.
It took a few calls to break the pile, but he heard us through the din and we had the sweep! Thank you Frank – we gave you a high-five and were very happy campers.
We kept at it to the final minute, building the log to 849 QSOs and just over 142,000 points. That was short of the 1,000 Q target we had set but we were still happy with the result. The suppressed performance on 40M Sunday morning, and the slower rate due to the enormous pileups, damped our overall total but we felt our effort was full-bore despite the challenges.
After the contest, we debriefed over a couple of ice-cold beverages, then slept soundly. I got the royal tour of Whitehorse on Monday, then flew home Tuesday – flying Air North from Yukon to Vancouver, then the final leg home to Kelowna, BC.
ARRL Contest Manager Sean Kutzko KX9X wrote in 2021, “If you’ve been wanting to travel for ham radio but don’t have the money for a big DXpedition, Sweepstakes offers a great option to be on the Other Side of the Pileup for a much lower cost. Several ARRL/RAC sections are pretty rare during the weekend. Some, like the Yukon or Puerto Rico, will definitely be on the more extreme edge of your travels in terms of cost. Also, the Yukon in November is a risky proposition weather-wise.”
He is right – winter weather often makes for flight delays in the North, but the airlines in these parts are prepared for anything Mother Nature throws at them. Air North has regular Boeing 737 flights to Whitehorse, and the airfare is very reasonable. And, as they say, getting there is half the fun!
If you want to experience the Northern Lights up close, enjoy a northern adventure, or have always wanted to operate from the “other side” of the pileups, Yukon operating is beyond compare.