Ham Radio Field Day 2008: Radio Activity in the Chiricahuas

July 25, 2008

Every year on the fourth weekend in June, more than 30,000 ham radio operators nationwide participate in a "Field Day" sponsored by the National Association for Amateur Radio. The purpose of the event is to demonstrate their ability to send messages in many different forms without the use of phone systems, internet or any other infrastructure that can be compromised in a crisis. Using only emergency power supplies, ham operators construct emergency stations in parks, shopping malls, schools and back yards all over the country.

Last year three hams from Tucson decided to make it interesting by setting up their equipment at Rustler Park high in the Chiricahua Mountains (elev. 8800'). Although the remote location proved less than ideal for radio, Al, Dave, and Dennis eagerly signed up for more abuse this year.

We caravaned with Al Thursday afternoon, clawing our way up the narrow winding road from Pinery Canyon in an unusually early monsoon thunderstorm. It looked like we'd have a front-row seat for the best show of the year. It was a challenge to erect both tents and prepare dinner with the wind doing its best to blow us back down the mountain. Our first radio contact was NOAA Weather Radio. Surprisingly, both tents were still standing the following morning.

Our friends, Jim and Jacki, also drove up from Willcox for the maiden voyage of their new mini truck tent. And finally, after an epic journey that included a tire repair at 4:00 in the morning, Dave and Adele hauled the Scamp up the hill from Tucson.

Jim and Jacki joined us for a Friday morning hike to Barfoot Lookout, a 1935-vintage wooden fire tower with a roof-catch cistern and a 360° view of the Chiricahuas. We were very sad to find the tower boarded up and abandoned. Click and drag the photo below for a sample of the splendiferous view from Barfoot Lookout.

Field Day officially began at 11:00 am Saturday, so much of Friday was spent firing feed lines high into the trees around our compound. Dennis drew quite a crowd as he attempted to launch a ½-inch nut, then a ½-inch socket, into a Ponderosa pine with a slingshot. Dave, aka Mr. Wizard, shows off his latest contraptions: a small-loop antenna made of copper tubing, and a 2m-70 cm log periodic antenna. Dennis phones home, a small planet near Betelgeuse, using an obscure language known as "PSK", while Al pounds on 10, 20, 40 and 80 meters using an 80-meter airborne dipole.

Saturday was a memorable hiking adventure, beginning with a challenge for the Taco Ma, ferrying three of us up the newly-reopened 4WD backroad from Rustler Park to Long Park. The old logging road shaves four miles RT off the trek to Chiricahua Crest. Jim "The Jackrabbit" raced ahead of us and we almost caught up with him at the junction for Flys Peak. A very tame deer at Round Park kept Jim company while he waited for us.

We were alarmed to find empty cans, discarded clothing and other migrant debris at Cima Saddle. Apparently, UDAs are now hiking all the way from the border along Price Canyon and the Chiricahua Crest, and then down to Portal via Greenhouse Trail.

While we were sifting through the trash, a group of firefighters from Douglas overtook us, on their way to battle a blaze on Snowshed Peak.

Big black clouds were boiling up over Chiricahua Peak, and a fire spotter plane circled overhead.

Dennis and I decided to turn back at the helipad site above Anita Park, while Jim and Jacki made it most of the way to Ojo Agua Fria. We stayed in touch via FRS radio, and had time for some bird-watching on the way back to the Taco Ma.

Sunday morning we lingered over breakfast and coffee in the sun, cherishing the cool pine-scented air, and putting off the return to Tucson as long as possible. A very tame doe hung out with us, fluttering her big dark eyelashes and posing for numerous photos.

It was 106° when we reached Tucson, but re-entry shock was eased by a dramatic thunderstorm. The snowbirds and the students are gone, the monsoon is on the doorstep, and my transplanted Queen of the Night cactus produced two luminous blossoms. Gotta love Tucson in the summer!