So, Stephen and I decided to go to the top of Grande Mountain in Grande Cache for amateur radio Field Day. I figured, since HF performance was so great in the town itself, it *must* be great atop a mountain that almost doubles in elevation from the town site itself. More sky coverage, less RF interference.
I took advantage of a firm subsidy and purchased a solar panel, some deep cycle lead-acid batteries, a charge controller, and a DC power bar. The firm subsidy reimbursed me 50% for this equipment, which meant that we could put it all to use atop Grande Mountain. The sun, which stays visible until 11pm during this time of year, would power the batteries, which in turn would power the radio and laptops.
Stephen cooked up a plan to use a WiFi antenna to shoot some wireless Internet up to the mountain. I bought a G5RV antenna, good all the way down to 80 meters, and figured we'd make a mini camping trip out of it, fire and all. Except that there would be no sleeping, what with Field Day being a 24-hour event.
The big decision was whether I would operate at 100W, full power, and risk depleting the batteries early. Or at 5W, and conserve battery life, but risk it not being enough power to "get out" and be heard by my fellow hams. At the end of the day, I took the 5W option. I figured that the elevation would give us a huge height advantage, and the lack of power wouldn't matter so much.
I left Edmonton at about 8:00am, with a plan to be in Grande Cache by noon, when Field Day officially started. It was completely overcast in Edmonton, with the forecast for Grande Cache promising "clear skies" and "increasing cloudiness" as the day wore on. After passing Edson (including a 30 minute wait at Tim Horton's), the sky completely opened up, revealing a fantastic view of the rockies just after Mount Obed. If the day was going to be anything like this, then everything would be fantastic.
That's my way of saying that just after I turned north onto the Grande Cache Highway, the sky became completely overcast again.
I picked up Stephen at his home in Grande Cache, where he was in the middle of getting ready to move in July. We then stopped in at Super A to pick up supplies: snacks, drinks, and hot dogs for roasting over the fire. Despite the cloudiness, it was going to be a good twenty-four hours.
My new Jeep Patriot is only two wheel drive, unlike my old Jeep Cherokee, which had authentic four wheel drive. The Cherokee was also higher off the ground, and I instantly missed the Cherokee as soon as I grounded the Patriot going up the first hill on the Grande Mountain service road. The Grande Cache highway was still visible behind us, where we turned off. We hadn't gone 100 meters without getting stuck already.
This was my first time off-roading. I remember the service road being in a lot better state of repair than it was. Potholes as large as a small car riddled the road. Years of rain runoff carved deep ruts into the road, sometimes diagonally, or along both sides of the road. Steering too far over to one side or another would guarantee a ditched vehicle.
Needless to say, I got a quick crash course in how to off-road properly. Aim the wheels for the highest point. Attack sharp bumps diagonally. Gain velocity *before* a long, steep hill.
One particularly hairy moment involved setting rocks behind the back wheels while on a steep hill, to prevent the Jeep from rolling back. Previous attempts resulted in a smoking right front tire, from where the tire was spinning uselessly against a rock below it. My Patriot's tire pressure, 62 PSI, was meant to achieve maximum fuel efficiency on the road. My old Cherokee's tire pressure, 32 PSI, was built for maximum gripping ability.
Eventually, the Jeep lurched forward. I dare not shift it into second gear, lest it stall. Then it jerked over to the right, right towards a rut that promised a wrecked vehicle. So I counter-steered frantically, just like you would in winter to get out of a skid, and the Jeep jerked towards the dangerous rut to the left.
These ruts were at least two feet deep, so digging out of one of those would take all night. If it could be done at all.
Stephen was outside at that point, left in massive clouds of dust as he yelled frantically for me to steer this way or that. The massive bumps were causing my cargo of lead-acid batteries, solar panel, and radio equipment to bang around like it was experiencing the worst air turbulence ever. Would my stuff even work after all of this? The sensitive solar panel was going to be cracked, for sure.
Meanwhile, the tachometer was showing 5,000 RPM and climbing. The oil warning light came on. The Jeep was throwing me around like something out of Little Big Planet, but I didn't dare stop. The end of the hill was just a few more meters ahead, a nice flat in the road. The tachometer was up to 6,000 RPM now, practically at the red line.
I stopped the Jeep on the flat and looked back. Stephen was invisible in that massive cloud of dust. I half expected to see my batteries tipped, acid pooling all over the insides of my vehicle. But, by some miracle, everything was still intact.
It took us about an hour to get to the top of the mountain. As we were unloading everything, I noticed that some of the hard plastic that makes up part of the inside of the Jeep had a hole punched into it. A lifted the floor of the cargo bay, where the spare tire is stored, and the damaged continued on. It seems that one of the huge, 70 lb. batteries lifted and then came crashing down with enough force during our ordeal so as to smash the hard plastic. That was my fault -- the batteries should have gone on the floor behind the front seats.
If that was the only damage my Jeep sustained, I considered myself lucky. The service road was in a lot worse shape than I remember it being.
The weather was still overcast, with no sign of letting up. It was extremely windy at the top, but we had expected that. Setup was a quick affair. First, the power system. Fortunately, the solar panel generated 12.8V despite the cloudy sky, enough to keep the batteries charged up. Second, the antenna, which we strung between the two radio towers. This required me to climb up one, tying it off when I felt too nervous to continue upwards.
I powered up the radio, and tuned around on 20 meters. Plenty of stations on the air. I tuned the antenna to the band, and tried contacting a few stations. Nothing. Eventually, I was able to make a contact with a station in Alberta -- an embarrassing state of affairs on 20 meters.
Meanwhile, Stephen wasn't having any luck with his wireless gear. I made a few more contacts on 40 meters, but nothing impressive. I could hear hundreds, if not thousands of stations across the bands, but none could hear me at my miniscule 5W. This was the opposite problem in Edmonton. There, everyone can hear me, I have no problems with the signal getting out. But the ambient RF noise of the city is so loud that it kills my listening ability.
I was averaging one contact every 30 minutes. An embarrassing result compared to my experience working with the New Westminster club years ago. Back then, I'd rattle off four or five contacts per minute.
Stephen built a fire, and we roasted up some hot dogs. It was about 6pm now. We enjoyed what we could, but now it was time to assess our options. It looked like a rain front was moving in from the west. We had no wireless Internet like we had hoped. The cloud cover made me worry about how long the batteries would last. The number of contacts I was racking up was decidedly less than impressive.
So, we made the decision to pack it up and head back into town. The original plan was to stay up on the mountain for the full 24-hours of field day. But with things looking so bleak, we'd just have a lot more fun back in town.
That's when I put my Jeep through its second challenge of the day: leaving it in first gear for most of the way down, to help reduce wear on the breaks. The engine whined at a constant 3,000 RPM as we snaked our way down. Without gravity fighting us, and with my earlier experience, it was a lot easier. We didn't get stuck, either.
Next year, I might just operate from home. The benefits of going up a mountain are just too little to justify putting my Patriot through another beating. Instead, I think I'll spend the next year trying to improve the noise issue at home. Then, I can operate utilizing solar power only.
Alas, another Field Day in the books.