Camaraderie in the Age of National Parks on the Air

Dawn view that brought me back and back again

It was like a pre dawn game.

Rolling down the hill I approach one red after another. Timing is everything in this game and I let the car coast, covering my brake. I’m upon it and red turns to green, signaling a win and I coast into the next round.

Passing over Lombard, I declare myself the winner and glide into possibly the only free parking space in a city that loves to monetize it’s drivers.

The elements have taken their toll.

Relentless sea water and misty mornings have corroded the metal work. Temporary barriers block access and I search for an opening. I barely make out the figures, hearing Cantonese as the fisherman ready their rods in an available opening and I keep looking. This other game is about timing too as I search for an unoccupied “cubby hole”.

I’ve been here before and will come again.

Cracks in the clouds paint a vista to the east. It’s magical to see the back lit city scape at waters edge. The iconic Ghiradeli sign across the water makes me think of chocolate. Looking north, light catches another city icon that to me is a soulless and sad place. Visiting it once decades ago, I never want to return. Leaving the Rock behind, I look west and see a favorite. Its orange profile lit bright against the dark sky stands out and says San Francisco to everyone that sees it.

It’s a Tuesday morning and I’m at the San Francisco Maritime Historical Park.

I love this place.

The tall ships, the views, the salt air and the museum remind me that San Francisco isn’t just tech and oodles of money. While the history isn’t very long, it’s viscerally poignant to the birth of my adopted home.

Riding shotgun for me

There’s a familiar pattern at the start. A flurry of stations that make this frenetic, that burst of energy and the adrenaline rush is one reason I come. Inevitably things slow.

Running a frequency is typically the domain of “big” stations. Lots of power and fancy antennas that shape and focus that power into a dominating signal keeping all others at bay. With 10 watts and a bit of metal sticking into the sky, I am many things but not a “big” station. It’s easy for my signal to get lost in the ether and in a lull have someone start using “my” frequency.

The voice was unmistakable, loud and clear. Definitely older, male and seemed so much like a voice from the heyday of NASA missions. That distinctive American ascent, maybe from Texas but definitely the south.

“This frequency is in use for a National Parks on the Air activation by a low power portable station”.

Someone is riding shotgun for me and keeping others off my frequency. I pause, think wow and say thank you on the air to my unknown guardian.

It’s left an impression on me. That unsolicited camaraderie, for what is effectively a new radio operator is the beginning of a journey punctuated by many things including the human aspect of radio.

A cubby hole that I competed for

Are we there yet?

Struggling in Whiskeytown

A few weeks later, having spent time fulfilling another goal to better understand my adopted state, I’ve wandered south from the border lands of Modoc county and find myself sitting on another water’s edge.

The goose seemed very excited. Circling me, marching back and forth and slowly becoming more assertive. I try hard to ignore him and settle into starting off my late afternoon activation. It’s slow, nabbing five or so contacts of the ten minimum before it goes very quiet.

Mid week, low power and possibly bad propagation might be conspiring toward my lull. I’m calling and calling and getting a little anxious that this might be a bust. Whiskeytown is three hundred miles north of home and I’m not sure I’m coming back.

The voice was loud, clear and instantly recognizable even without a callsign.

“Hey Paul, how’s the activation going?”

“Slowly”, I respond “and I haven’t made my ten yet”

“Let’s see if we can fix that”

Larry had almost always been my first contact on each of my National Park activations. He’s super focused and organized about chasing activators like me. Ultimately, this is why Larry became the number one chaser of the 2016 event with a stunning 460 worked entity points.

As a community, we have used many methods to let others know where we are and what frequency we are on including Facebook.

The posts were clear.

Paul, W6PNG has been out and done many portable activations to help the chaser community.

He’s struggling and needs more contacts.

Get on the air and help him out!!

Reading these warmed my heart and as the contacts rolled in and my tally rose, I thought “wow, Larry didn’t have to do that” and once again it’s the small unexpected action that in some respects are the most memorable. This is camaraderie again.

“You must be Paul”

The door closed and I find myself sitting in the passenger seat with two strangers.

The initial moments could be awkward but aren’t as we chat in an attempt to better understand who we are. We aren’t complete strangers in that we have a common friend that has brokered this meeting but its a risk and could be horribly awful or stupendously wonderful.

Leaving Santa Fe, we’re heading for the hills on the start of three days of adventure. We have two “parks” to activate; Bandelier National Monument and Valles Caldera National Preserve and a series of SOTA peaks.

John and Fred….my hosts and now friends

We wind along interstates and over mountain dirt roads. John has lent me his KX3 to save the hassles of mine as carry on luggage and the gauntlet of TSA. We go north one day, west another and continue to traverse the area burning up Fred’s gas. I’m invited to John’s house for dinner with Fred and his wife. John and Fred are super accomplished SOTA activators ranking amongst the best in North America but in all of this and despite limited interest in NPOTA, we have found our way to two National Park entities that contain SOTA peaks.

As the three days wrap up and I’m deposited back at my hotel, I reflect on what a lucky guy I am.

Its been a fabulous trip to New Mexico. Fred and John the best of hosts and once again, I’m reminded that possibly the most poignant memory is the camaraderie that continues to exist and pervade my radio life.

Somewhere in my corporate journey, I remember reading that younger people collect possessions and as we get older and possibly have too much, our focus turns to collecting experiences and memories.

Thats seems very true to me and the 2016 NPOTA event was a bumper crop of lasting memories.

Thank you ARRL for organizing it.

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