Monday, March 31, 2014

A Diary of our 2014 Death Valley QRPedition

The following is a diary of our latest trip to Death Valley from March 2 to 10, written by Dave Crocker, W6VYC. Photos and captions by Dave Flack, W6DLF

Death Valley QRPedition Adventure            

Operators and Equipment:

Dave Crocker W6VYC, Elecraft KX3, homebrew Bravo 5 ground plane operating on 10M thru 20M, SSB.
Dave Flack W6DLF, ICOM 703, 40 ft. vertical with 8 radials tuned by ICOM AH-4 tuner operating on 10M thru 80M, PSK31 using an Android Nexus 7 tablet with DroidPSK app and a Wolphie interface.
Transportation: 1992 Toyota 4 Runner

Sunday, 2 Mar.  Afton Canyon BLM campground near Baker, CA
Dave Flack (W6DLF) and I (W6VYC also Dave) took off for some QRP ops and backcountry camping in Death Valley in his new (to him) 1992 4runner SUV. After a lunch/supply layover in Bakersfield we arrived at our first campsite (Afton Canyon BLM) around 5 PM. Since we were only going to camp here overnight we didn't set up any radio equipment. If you like mosquitoes and trains this is the place for you. It is one of the few spots where the Mojave River is above ground and you have a railroad bridge with every freight train going east and west right overhead. The music was deafening all night long, usually 2 engines in the front with a helper bring up the rear. We met a number of campers, snowbirds from Canada, a lady that warned us the privy door did not work and to please knock before entering and a young gal with tattoos that partied half the night.

Monday/Tuesday, 3-4 Mar. Saratoga Spring, (aka Saratoga Springs) Death Valley Nat'l. Park 
We broke camp and left for Baker, east on the 15, to get some gas on our way to our first Death Valley location, Saratoga Spring in the very south of the park just off highway 127 near the Harry Wade Road. Death Valley camping rules only allow camping at designated campgrounds or greater than 2 miles off a paved road, in a previously disturbed site no more than 30 feet off a backcountry road. There was only one site that qualified about a mile before the Spring. It wasn’t a bad radio site with good North, East and South visibility. My (W6VYC) first contact was FG5DH, Chris in Guadalupe Island followed some stateside QSOs mostly on 10M. Dave (W6DLF) made many PSK31 contacts….). We hiked out by Saratoga Spring along a route that was used to extract Talc from a number of mines in the area. Talc and Borax were the money making minerals in Death Valley. Saratoga Spring is wet year around and is hosts an array of wildlife, ducks, coots and other small birds. It is one of the few potable springs in Death Valley and was used to supply many of the wagon trains going west. It is somewhat salty but drinkable.  There were lots of wildflowers about:  Desert Five Spot, Purple Heather, Desert Gold along with the ubiquitous Creosote Bush and Cholla Cactus. The elevation was about 200 ft. so it was near 75 during the day and about 40 at night. For more information about Saratoga Spring area visit Backroads West.
Dave (W6DLF) operating PSK31 with his Nexus 7
tablet and Icom 703 running 5 watts

Our campsite near the Springs. Dave, W6VYC's
 Bravo 5 homebrew antenna on its tripod. 

Dave, W6VYC, bird watching at Saratoga Spring

Wednesday, 5 Mar.        The "Racetrack" and the Great Gas Crisis
We took off around 9 AM for Furnace Creek for lunch and to get gas ($5.50/gal) and ice ($5.50 for 7lbs.), take it or leave it. Since it is the only place around, we took it. We had a pretty long drive to the Racetrack for our next overnight, 50 miles north to the Ubehebe Crater on a paved road then 35 miles south on a rough unpaved road to the Racetrack. We were told at the Visitor Center that the playa (dry lake bed) was wet and we would not be able to go out on the mud as it can sometimes take years to make footsteps go away. Well, lucky for us this turned out to be wrong and we hiked out to the Grand Stand and on to see the moving rocks at the south end of the 3.5 mile long playa. The surface was dry but the mud below was still soft from the recent rain so it was like walking on your living room carpet.

We got to the campground around 6 PM and it was just getting dark, no time to set up an antenna. We made a quick visit to the folks camped there and chatted with a couple of young guys sitting in lawn chairs staring at the mountain vista. We quickly decided this was going to be a one nighter since it was not much of a Ham location and the campground wasn't great either, but it did have an outhouse which was more than the Saratoga Spring location. The campground was almost full by the time we had something to eat.

We discussed how far it was to Eureka Dunes and then on to our Death Valley exit point of Big Pine on the 395 south of Bishop (Owens Valley). No matter how we figured there wasn't going to be enough gas to make it, particularly since we would be driving mostly on gravel roads. The only alternative was to drive all the way back south to Stove Pipe Wells, get gas and then come back the 90 plus miles to Eureka Dunes. Then, we struck gold! In the back of the pickup of the two guys we met was a full five gallon gas container with a special pouring spout, just what we needed. We invited them over for coffee and breakfast (turned out that their cook stove was missing a part so all they had for dinner was potato chips). They were Navy electronics techs studying for nuclear sub service in Connecticut. One of them was a Ham so we were old buddies after 5 minutes. I was a CT (Communications Tech) when I was in the Navy in the 60’s.  We swapped some sea stories and got down to some serious negotiations. We offered them 40 bucks for the gas, but since they were not going to need it themselves, they thought that was too much. We assured them that this was less than half the price of our alternative and sealed the deal. With our exit assured, we visited a local mine site and then set out for Eureka Dunes.
Dave, W6VYC, walking out on the Racetrack

The mysterious moving rocks of the Death Valley Racetrack

The gas we needed to get out of Death Valley!

Thursday/Friday/Saturday, 6-8 Mar.       Eureka Dunes
After a bumpy, dusty ride, we arrived at Eureka Danes at about 3 PM. The first campsite area was pretty full so we went down the road a mile or so to a spot that had more space. Just as we were setting up camp we heard this huge roar overhead only to look up and see an F-18 zoom overhead, only a couple of hundred feet off the ground. I have read stories about how Navy pilots like to target unsuspecting campers but never experienced such a close fly by. By the time we looked up he was heading away near a gap between the mountains and the dunes disappearing out of sight in a second or two.
One like ours and about as close.

Now back to Ham Radio Land. We setup our antennas and got on the air around 4 PM. Conditions were not great but I had a nice rag chew on 10M with KD4AF, in North Carolina. He had been to Death Valley so he had a lot of questions and since I had been to North Carolina we went on for a while. The real action started the next day, band conditions were great with a bunch of European stations coming in S9. Naturally, I had to wait my turn as the high-power east coast stations virtually wipe out QRP stations particularly from the West coast. Around 10 am I could hear west coast stations getting in and I talked to DF2WF (Germany), F4DWG (France), and IK4GRO (Italy) in less than an hour.  Around noon time I talked to a couple of stateside stations (K5C, USS Texas; ND0SB, N.D.) I did hear some Japanese stations in the afternoon but they were weak and didn't hear me. Around 15:00 I had a nice rag chew with VK1ZZ who is a tester for Elecraft so we a good time chatting since both Dave Flack and I have met the Elecraft team on many occasions. I did manage one contact in Japan, JR4VDV later that afternoon. All this action was on 10M which can be great fun for a QRP station. Dave Flack worked a rare country, Belarus, EW6FW, with 5 watts using PSK31 on 15M.
Eureka Dunes (700 feet) in the background.
The 40 foot fiberglass pole antenna, hitch mounted to 4Runner

One of the better sunsets we enjoyed.

Our sun/wind shelter. We used reflective Mylar emergency
blankets to keep the blazing sun at bay. The air temps were in the 60s F.

In between operating we also managed a couple of hikes up on the Eureka Dunes which is a pretty tough go on some of the steeper slopes which can be 45 degree angles. The top of the dunes have a knife edge shape and are difficult to walk on and have steep drop offs so you can end up at the bottom in hurry if you are not careful. We also hiked off the end of a jeep road that leads to another set of dunes in a canyon called the Hidden Dunes on the west side of the Eureka valley. We met a couple of young hikers at the trailhead and headed out in the direction of the canyon. It was about 3.5 miles just to get to the canyon and since we didn't have a lot of water we parted company and went back to the SUV on our own.
Looking down the knife edge atop the Dunes
Our campsite is in the middle of the photo.
Hidden Dunes in the background
Maybe next time?

Sunday,  9 Mar.                 Red Rock Canyon State Park
We left Eureka Dunes on Sunday around 9:30 AM and headed out the Death Valley-Big Pine road over a pass at about 7500 ft. that exits into the Owens Valley at Big Pine on highway 395. We had lunch in Independence and stopped in Lone Pine to get supplies. It was late afternoon when we arrived in Red Rock so we only set up enough to cook some food and throw our sleeping bags on the ground. I spent half the night watching the Big Dipper going around in the sky.
Dave Crocker is the official food planner and cook and damn good at it!

The colorful hills of Red Rock Canyon State Park

Monday, 10 Mar.             Bakersfield, CA
The morning started out with a beautiful sun rise typical of what you see in the desert when it is clear and there are few clouds on the horizon. We packed up the SUV and headed out to Bakersfield for lunch and gas, and to see if we could find a Mexican seafood restaurant that we had been to on a past trip for some fish tacos. There wasn’t much cell coverage so we tried using the GPS to see what we could find. The first listing under seafood restaurants was the “El Puerto” on the old Edison Highway in east Bakersfield. What a place, it was like going to Mexico. There were 507 shops and many restaurants including El Puerto. I got to practice a little of my bad Spanish and had some great fish tacos. 

There were a couple of big guys next to us with shaved heads and lots of tattoos that had this column of beer with tap to extract the magic liquid, the likes that I have only seen once before in Germany. Dave Flack asked if it would be OK to take a picture of it/them. Good thing they were in good mood who knows what gang they belonged to. I also took a shot with of Dave F. with their beer arrangement in the background. The damn thing stood about 3 feet high and contained two columns, one inside the other. The inner one was ice while the outer contained the beer, all 100 oz. The funny thing was the waiter had asked for their I.D.s when it was obvious they were both over 21. Good thing we left before they did as I wouldn’t have wanted to run into these guys on the highway (Hi Hi).
We arrived back in Sunnyvale after the usual long boring grind up the 5 and over Pacheco Pass road to the 101--another great trip behind us.

¡Dos hombres y su cerveza gigante!

1 comment:

  1. Great write up Dave! The story is in the journey!!!