Multi-Contesting QRP/P from a Unique and Battered Island

Last Saturday (August 26 2017 12:00z to August 27 2017 03:00z) took place the 2017 edition of the “W/VE Islands QSO Party” (W/VE IQP) organized by the “US Islands Awards Program” (https://usislands.org). Its timing partially coincided with the “Kansas QSO Party” (KSQP, http://www.ksqsoparty.org), the “Ohio QSO Party” (OHQP, https://www.ohqp.org) and the “Rumanian HF DX Contest” (YODX, http://www.yodx.ro). The weather forecast being favourable, the possibility emerged for simultaneous participation in all four events (plus any non-contesting QSO that could be gleaned from the bands) while operating QRP/P from a unique little island in the Ottawa River.

Hence, on Friday August 25, 2017, shortly after 17:00 EDT, a Com-Pac SunCat 17 leisurely undocked from the Nepean Sailing Club marina and motor-sailed up-river. An hour later she was at anchor in 5-6 feet of water on the lee of Aylmer Island, a water-locked island in the middle of the Ottawa River (Grid Loc: FN25BJ35). The island had been qualified two years before (https://thewakesileave.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/aylmer-island-on-295/) for the Canadian Islands Activators (CIA) program (http://veislandactivators.blogspot.ca) and is identified in the CIA database as “ON295”). The short sail was uneventful but unusually choppy. Headwinds were around 5 Kts, but the waves, though not cat-pawing, were unusually large – likely because of the long fetch due to the wind blowing in the direction of the flow of the river for over 15 nautical miles (abt. 30 Km).

The aim was to spend the night at the anchor and make an early landing on the island early on Saturday morning carrying the portable station to operate QRP/P on location for the entire 15 hours of the W/VE IQP competition. Following a frugal dinner there was still time to smoke a pipe while watching the sunset.

W-VE_IQP 2017_01

Overnights spent swinging at the anchor are usually pretty Spartan, as bedtime is not much beyond sunset and the awakening is usually ahead of sunrise. The island offers limited protection to wind and waves, particularly because the waves refract at both ends of the island creating a crossing pattern in its lee not far from shore. Sleeping requires getting used to sudden pulls of the anchor rode from the bow, those of the dinghy painter from the stern, the dull “bottom” sound made by the steel centerboard trying to limit the swaying of the hull, and the eerie chants of the ropes inside the spars finding their resonating frequencies, all blended together by the sound of wavelets bubbling and streaming along the hull. Around midnight I popped the head through the cabin hatch. The air was fresh and the wind was still around 5 Kts from the northwest. Sassy was the only boat in the anchorage. Lights of all kinds were glittering from the shores of Lac Deschênes. Nearby, the marker in the island flashed emerald green. In the distance, towards the northeast, a red light up on shore suddenly turned green, and then yellow and red again. I concluded it had to be a traffic light (likely the one at the intersection where Québec route 148 changes from Chemin Eardley to Boulevard des Allumettières). I was unable to identify a marker light that had been a faithful companion in previous visits to the anchorage: the white light flashing Morse code “A” from the fairway buoy at the entrance of channel to the Aylmer marina was not in sight. There were no clouds and the moon had long dropped below the horizon (still too close to the Sun after the solar eclipse five days before) but the sky was not black: it had a dark-grey frosted-glass appearance (likely due to light scattering in layers of smoke that lingered in the upper atmosphere) with the Milky Way unsuccessfully trying to shine through. Nevertheless, I readily identified high above the “Summer Triangle” with the three Alphas: Alpha-Cygnus (Deneb), Alpha-Lyra (Vega) and Alpha-Aquila (Altair), and prolonging the line joining Altair to Deneb, the “W” of Cassiopeia. Reassured on where I still stood in the Universe, I went back to the warmth of the berth.

I awoke a few minutes before sunrise. As I stepped to the cockpit I looked up: a lonely osprey soared high above the anchorage. The mist over the river was lifting towards the Ontario shore. I had a quick “Continental” boat-breakfast and started to get the Sportyak ready for the landing operation. Aylmer Island is only 4 nautical miles (abt 8 km) west of the Nepean marina, in the middle of the Ottawa River, surrounded by rocks and with no landing dock. Hence, safe getting wet or beaching the boat (not an option for a Sun-Cat), the only way for reaching the island is to anchor downstream of it or on its lee and then row a dinghy to shore. Sassy’s tender is a 6-foot French Sportyak II with a polystyrene hull. Due to its two-hull design it is particularly stable. Nevertheless, transferring radio gear between the boat and the dinghy, with both rocking asynchronously in the waves, is easy compared to the transfer of my own persona – an operation that seems to get more challenging every year. This time it required some thinking and physical effort, but both the transfer and the landing were performed to satisfaction.

Once ashore, a large dog with the looks of an adult Rottweiler disliked my presence on the island and came running towards me from the tent camp on the other end of the beach. Walking slowly and speaking to it while always facing it I was able to stop its progress and then diffuse its belligerence (the fact that I was carrying the S9v42 telescopic pole in my right hand might have also been of help). Eventually, its sleepy and unapologetic owner called it back to his tent.

W-VE_IQP 2017_03

I chose a spot under a small elm-tree, not far from the one I had occupied for the W/VE IQP in 2016 (https://thewakesileave.wordpress.com/2016/08/30/self-marooned-in-an-island-with-only-a-w3edp-and-a-kx3/). I operated the Elecraft KX3 at 5W for CW and 10W for SSB, both in 40m and 20m, using the PAR EndFedZ Tribander held vertically by the S9v42 telescopic pole leaning against the elm. All CW exchanges were manual with the Palm Single Paddle in Yambic mode, except for the SKCC contact for which it was switched to straight-key mode. WX was sunny (in spite of the smoke haze from the fires out West) and I was able to operate akmost without interruptions for about 7 hours (8:15a to 3:15p EDT).

Most of the 48 QSOs logged were in the OHQP and the KSQB but there were a few nice surprises:

  • Genesee Radio Club Special Station W8ACW in MI celebrating the 40th Annual Crim Festival of Races.
  • David WA3GIN in VA holding the ECARS Net frequency (7.255 MHz), who took the time to record and play back my transmissions and helped improve the audio of the KX3.
  • SKCC CW QSO with Curt WA2JSG, SKCC Nr. 3018S.
  • SOTA QSO with John N0TA calling CQ from W0C/FR-073 Redskin Mountain, CO,
  • POTA QSO with Mike W8MSC operating portable from KFF-1544 Tahquamenon Falls, MI,
  • And five precious contacts island-to-island with W/VE islands participating in the W/VE IQP:
    • Andy K2ADA in FL043S (Merrit Is.),
    • Bruce N4STG in GA044L (Latham Is.),
    • Ray W8RD FL017S (Honeymoon Is.),
    • Scott KM1MM in AL002S (Dauphin Is.) and
    • John CG3ISE in ON007 (Henley Is.).

W-VE_IQP 2017_02

Logs have been submitted already for the W/VE IQP (48 QSOs), the KSQP (10 QSOs), the OHQP (27 QSOs) and the YO HF DX contest (2 QSOs). The SKCC contact was with an SKCC Senator not contacted before, and the SOTA contact was worth 2 summit-chasing points in the SOTA database.

I had hoped to stay on the air longer, but Aylmer Island tends to get pretty wild on Saturday nights in the summer, and I decided against spending a second night in the anchorage. So, around 17:00 EDT Sassy weighed anchor and motored back to her slip in the Nepean Sailing Club, this time in lighter winds and smoother seas than the day before.

As I was about to leave the anchorage a hydroplane started circling above. It eventually water-landed and taxied to the beach south of the island: it was the Seabee Robinson Special 003 “CF-EVE”: http://www.seabee.info/robinson_003.htm.

A word on the island – Aylmer Is. is a rare small rocky island in the middle of the Ottawa River, within a section of the river where most other islands are mainly alluvial. It has no docks and its only amenity is an old “thunderbox” surrounded by poison ivy. Before the advent of Europeans the island was a burial ground of the Algonquin people inhabiting the Ottawa Valley. Human remains were found while excavating the foundations for the lighthouse (http://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/archeo/sowter/sowterofnce.shtml, http://www.heritagepontiac.ca/aisle.htm) and their descendants may still have a legitimate claim to the island as well as to the rest of the valley (http://www.lynngehl.com/uploads/5/0/0/4/5004954/huitema_for_swinwood.pdf, https://www.ontario.ca/page/algonquin-land-claim). Later, the island was chosen as the site for a wooden lighthouse whose original wood structure can be seen in the background of a historic photograph taken in 1899 (http://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/archeo/sowter/lighthouseisle.shtml). In modern times it was replaced with a lateral marker, currently with a sun-powered light that flashes green. The original lighthouse is listed as “Historic CAN867” in the ARLHS World List of Lights (http://wlol.arlhs.com/lighthouse/CAN867.html), while the modern marker light is identified in the official “List of Lights, Buoys and Fog Signals” of the Canadian Coast Guard “Notices to Mariners (Notmar)” as light Nr. 1299 (https://www.notmar.gc.ca/publications/list-livre/inlandwaters-eauxinter/i12333e.pdf). At the top of the promontory on the north side of the island, close to the site where the original lighthouse would have existed and human remains had been found, is a Canadian Geodetic Survey marker. It is still fully recognizable in spite of having been earnestly disfigured. A similar fate seems to have been followed by the broken helicopter landing-pad, once used by the Canadian Coast Guard attending the light. The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat used to list Aylmer Island as “Crown owned” with “Fisheries and Oceans Canada” being its “Custodian”. However, in a 2010 document, the Ottawa City Council (http://ottawa.ca/calendar/ottawa/citycouncil/occ/2010/07-14/pec/6%20-%20ACS2010-ICS-PGM-0098%20-%20Anomalies%20and%20Correction%20Q2%202010.htm) proposed the correction of an “anomaly in Zoning By-law 2008-250” by which “The Official Plan designates the island as Natural Environment Area. Therefore the island should be zoned EP – Environmental Protection to reflect the intent that no development should occur on this island.“. On Saturday, two different specimens of Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexipus) were seen flying to the island from the Quebec side. After resting and having a drink along the south shore of the island, they proceeded south crossing to the Ontario shore, likely starting their momentous journey to Mexico (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monarch_butterfly_migration). Hence, Aylmer Island may serve as an initial stepping-stone for the migration of Monarch butterflies.

W-VE_IQP 2017_04

However, the island – clearly a fragile ecosystem – is in deplorable condition. Isolated islands often offer the feeling of unrestricted freedom, and people, particularly young people, camp and party in the island leaving behind smoldering fires, empty cans, broken bottles and many other types of residues. Since the island lacks garbage bins as well as a regular garbage collection schedule, all this material lingers in the beach and other parts of the island waiting for a flood that would cause it all to stream downriver to pollute other shores or reach the Sea. Dogs are regularly brought to the island unleashed, leaving behind samples of their digested meals. I have witnessed large pontoon boats ram the island and once beached, unload dogs and humans, some of these with obvious signs of being under the influence. Visitors to the island constantly create new fire-pits for their bonfires by digging the gravelly sand and moving around big pebble-rocks smoothened by the passage of the glaciers. All this would hardly happen were the island not a small piece of water-locked land, but part of the Ontario mainland. And at every visit I cannot help but ponder what is that could be done to improve on such sorry and undeserved state of affairs.

 

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