SOTA #1

I have been a licensed amateur radio operator since 1974. My activity has waxed and waned over the years but I have always kept my license active. Recently an email from Kevin arrived which piqued my interest in the hobby again. I got to doing some research online and found an aspect of the hobby previously unknown to me. SOTA is Summits On The Air, a group based in the UK which promotes mountaintop portable radio communications. You gain points by getting to the tops of mountains or hills and achieving at least four contacts with other ham radio operators. The summits are selected by local administrators for each region of the world, who assign points based on altitude. Your setup must be independent of any vehicle i.e no power or other connections to a car’s battery. Most summits require hike-ins, carrying everything on your back. Obviously these will be low power operations since portable rigs can’t generate more than 5-15 watts usually with the size batteries one could carry up any reasonable hill. You must of course bring an antenna, too, and set it up. This activity could combine my love of hiking and my interest in amateur radio.

So I got intrigued. I had in my possession one of the classic QRP radios, a Yaesu FT-817, though I hadn’t used it in years. I pulled it out and immediately discovered that the inboard battery pack was dead. Therein began the odyssey. . .I won’t bore you with the details though it involved getting a new battery, finding a multiband HF antenna (more on that below), and some accessories. As summits can be “activated” only once a year by a single operator, I wanted to get my first activation done on the last day of 2016. I also had to ramp up my Morse Code skills (called “CW” in our lingo for “continuous wave”) which had lain dormant for many years. Surprisingly I was able to resurrect my ability there reasonably quickly (at least on the receiving side), with the help of the wonderful website LCWO.  My FT-817 is multimode (CW, SSB, FM, AM, and digital modes) so I wanted to get at least 3 of those operational. To gain the points awarded to this summit I had to make a minimum of 4 contacts.

My summit of choice (in SOTA-speak W4G/HC-024) was nearby, just a 3 mile hike from my house. Altitude was 720 m, about 300 m of ascent from my house. I packed all my gear, put some warm clothes on, and started off before dawn, using a headlamp to find my way in the dark though I knew the trail well. The temperature was about 35℉ but there wasn’t much wind. I quickly got overheated and had to ditch the heavy sweater I was wearing.  I got to the hilltop without any trouble and started to set up. On top the wind was a lot worse, whistling briskly across, and the downwind side of the summit was mostly a sheer cliff, so it was tough to shelter. As I stopped moving I quickly got cold. Putting the rig and gear together I tried to find some stations to contact. I did manage a mangled CW contact in Indiana with one fellow, but it was tough: cold finger, portable paddles, and wind howling around your ears do not make for ideal listening or sending especially with my rusty technique. Next I attempted SSB for a phone contact on 40 and 20 m bands with no luck, calling CQ multiple times there with no response. Frustrated and starting to get cold, I took the easy way out and got on 2 m FM simplex and chatted with 3 or 4 of the local hams in the nearby neighborhood to complete the minimum number of contacts for the activations points . I was starting to shiver so I decided to call it a morning, packed up my gear, and hiked off the mountaintop. My frozen toes and fingers rapidly warmed up. The final dregs of the coffee from my thermos were gratefully gulped and I went home happy but humbled.

Things that went right:

  • I successfully activated the summit
  • I got the required number of contacts for award points (barely).
  • I got in the SOTA database for 2016
  • My portable setup worked, and my radio used two different modes for contacts with other hams.
  • I was able to change frequencies, zerobeat, change antennas, select modes, adjust mic gain and perform other radio related adjustments under difficult conditions.
  • It was good exercise (6-7 miles of hiking with 15 lbs on my back).

Things to improve

  • Need better antenna (stay tuned for updates)
  • Need better CW sending skills (best to practice on air)
  • Optimize audio (earbuds save weight but fall out at inopportune moments)
  • Need better ergonomics (hard to concentrate on radio and audio when body is uncomfortable).
  • Want to complete some  HF SSB contacts, too.

In any case, I gave myself a little challenge and completed it. In our convenience culture, we middle aged farts need to keep doing some hard things occasionally.

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A hard day in the saddle (Part II)

The route and elevation profile
The route and elevation profile

Time to ride! After a decent breakfast, Vikki loaded me into the car and off we went. Sky was clear and temperature was 48 degrees with a mild westerly breeze.

Before the start
Before the start

There were about 1100 riders pushing off at 7:30 am. There’s something always invigorating about seeing so many other riders starting with you–it’s a psychological boost but one has to be careful not to cross wheels. In addition, it’s always tempting to go faster than you should just due to the atmosphere of a big group of riders, so I had to consciously dial back the pace in those early miles.  I had some thin layers on and glad of it with cold muscles and the early am chill combining against me, but I didn’t want to be burdened with a lot of extra clothing to peel off later in the day–I had to be self-sufficient for 100 miles.

IMG_3577 (1)
Best business slogan I’ve seen in awhile . . .

The first ten miles were flat–a good warmup. The first climb was pretty easy: 5.5 miles but the average gradient only 5-6 % . There were lots of cyclists going up the same hill at the same time, so it was a little tricky negotiating around them but I did pass many even though my exertion felt only mild. The downhill was glorious but chilly as it was in the shade. Then the first rest stop at about 22 miles–well-stocked with friendly people, good snacks, and lots of porta-potties (Some of us guys went out to the adjacent fencerow ).

During the next 15 miles or so I started to feel tired and thought “Oh, no, I can’t feel bad yet-I’m not even halfway”. But then I slowed down, relaxed and got back in with some different groups that helped break the wind and my legs came back.

Top of Sand Mountain climb looking back
Top of Sand Mountain climb looking back

I stopped at every rest stop (total five) for 10 minutes or so each, stretching, using the bathroom, eating, refilling my water bottles. After passing into Alabama, the second climb was steeper (average 8% for 2.5 miles) and moderate to hard exertion but I never feared not making it.

At the top were some lovely views off Sand Mountain looking west. Then we went across the plateau on top of with some rollers for the next 15-20 miles before a delicious descent down to the GA state line near Trenton. Crossing over I-59 we all knew what was approaching: the climb up Burkhalter Gap.

Right before Burkhalter  (starting at 82 miles) was a wonderful rest stop with dill pickles, PB&J sandwiches, a water hose, mechanical help, and shade (temperature now in low 80s with sunshine).  I knew I couldn’t linger, but I massaged my legs and tried some positive self-talk to prepare me for the ordeal ahead.

Burkhalter Gap goes up for 2.5 miles averaging 9% without undulation for the first 2 miles–just up. There’s a brief respite of 3-4% gradient, then the last 200 meters cants up to 13 % just to finish you off. Now remember-I had made it up once before and crapped out one other time trying it, so today was the tiebreaker. But I had never done it after two previous climbs and 80+ miles of riding–or so that little devil kept whispering.

I got into a rhythm and cranked along. I stayed seated for the first 50%, knowing I would need to conserve my standing leg strength for the last steeper part. During the first half of the climb, I was passing a few other cyclists during the ascent and thinking “you’re going to make it”.  During the second half, I started to have doubts. I got tired, the sun was hot, the mileage was taking its toll, and I alternated sitting and standing. The small respite in incline came and I tried to spin the legs a little to release the lactic acid. Then came the last stretch at 13%. Boy,  was I tempted to quit. The little devil kept whispering “you’ve made it 90%, it’s no shame to walk the rest, you don’t know anyone out here, no one will care . . .” Then my guardian angel appeared.

Some young man was running up and down the last 100 meters of the climb with a cowbell ringing it like he was calling the dead to life and screaming at each and every cyclist “You’re almost there, keep going, you’re going to make it, just a little more, you can do it . . .” I was too stressed to even look up at him, but that cowbell galvanized me and reversed my thinking. Now it was “Well, I can’t let him down, can I?” I stood up in the saddle the last 100 meters and went over the timing mat, turning left into the rest area at the top.  Hanging over the handlebars and gasping for breath, I was overcome with the emotion of the moment, thinking to myself: “you actually did it”   Then I saw a ten-year old boy come up right behind me–oh well.

The rest of the ride was anti-climactic, though my legs were starting to cramp up.

Actually just as I crossed the finish line my right quadriceps seized up and had to coast to the curb, almost falling off the bike. Vikki and Helen were there to greet me, and the beer trailer was a short walk away. The sense of relief was tremendous.

What did I learn?

  • Fitness is a spectrum-the same first hill I found to be a mild exertion would have been impossible for many others, just as the KOM cyclist up Burkhalter traveled at almost twice my speed during his ascent.
  • It’s so important to eat and drink a lot while riding these long distances: I probably consumed 80-100 oz. of sport drink and 800-1000 calories.
  • Intensity (hills or fast rides on the flats) is the key to increasing your fitness.
  • Long rides are essential to prepare for, well, long rides.
  • You can always do more than you think you can.
  • There are kind people everywhere and I am grateful for them (someone give that cowbell ringer a medal or a six-pack or a second cowbell, please!)
  • My wife and children kindly put up with my schedule disruptions, fatigue and sweaty clothes while training.

Mt. Ventoux, here I come!

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A Hard Day in the Saddle (Part I).

From my first few months in Chattanooga, I wanted to complete the 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge century ride.  In 2013 I planned to ride it but injured my knee and had to quit training. At the beginning of 2016 I decided to try again.

There were several aspects to completing this ride. First, the training. The basics of completing a century ride (100 miles) on a bike are well-known: establish a base of riding miles, add some intensity with increased tempo, practice climbing, and do long rides of at least 75% of the distance before the big day. However, when it’s January, 30 degrees and dark outside, and the bed is warm, it’s not easy getting on the trainer and pounding out intervals before going to work. (Sufferfest videos plugged into the TV really help-great scenery, interesting trivia, inspiring music, and a little humor). After the daylight savings time change in the spring, there’s more daylight at end of day, but riding then interrupts family dinner time, interferes with school activities, and conflicts with on-call duties at the hospital.

Avoiding injuries is next. During one training ride, I outran or out maneuvered five dogs out of six but the last one was too old or too fat or too slow to get out of my way as I tried to vector away.  Fortunately it was at low speed as I scooted my thigh and knee across the asphalt producing a beautiful road rash abrasion that kept me from sleeping on that side for several weeks-but no broken bones. Then I developed a low back sprain. Several sessions with the physical therapist and a better post-ride stretching routine helped clear that up.

Finally, the mental aspect. My chosen route had three discrete climbs, each between 1000-1400 feet ascents over 2 to 5 miles. I rode each of them separately, but one day about three weeks before the big day I tried to do 75 miles over climbs #2 and #3 and had to quit halfway up the second hill. That was devastating to my confidence. Lots of negative self-talk ensued:

  • If you can’t do two hills in a day, how are you going to do three?
  • That last hill is a beast, you’ll probably have to walk up
  • Maybe I should just do the metric century
  • Why am I doing all this exactly?

I started losing sleep, had trouble concentrating, experienced some very anxiety-filled dreams, and I told myself: “it’s just a stupid bike ride, dummy”.  Basically I was afraid–afraid of failing, afraid of quitting, afraid of the pain. Then I did one intense club ride averaging 19 mph for 25 miles, a metric century in Louisville at 18 mph and those efforts encouraged me. Finally, the weather on ride day was projected to be near perfect, and I committed to the endeavor. I tapered off training for the last week, washed and polished my bicycle, and laid out all my gear.  Game on!

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Sandy adventures

When you combine a sense of adventure, exploring the unknown, and a little bit of history, you get the makings of a good bike ride. Watch out for tricky dropoffs, though.

 

Topsail ramble

We were on vacation at the beach on the Florida Panhandle recently, and I decided to explore nearby Topsail Preserve State Park. Topsail has a lot of varied ecosystems, including ocean beach, dunes, coastal lakes, and conifer forests. There are multiple good bike trails, including one 3-4 mile paved path and lots of other tracks through the woods mostly with sandy terrain underwheel. I just went exploring, though my goal was to findJB-2-Missile-on-a-sled remnants of the old WW II training site where some of the first US missile program testing was performed.

 

 

 

Well, as it turns out I wasn’t in exactly the right spot, but I had fun riding through the woods anyway.

IMG_3070 As you might expect, once off the paved path I didn’t encounter a single other person on foot or bike. The day was cool but there was some extra work trolling across the sandy surface since moving sand around with your bike tires doesn’t translate to much forward momentum.

Speaking of momentum, the other thing about sand is that it absorbs momentum pretty efficiently. Especially when your front wheel is airborne after a drop off, the bike is pointed down, your incompetent cyclist’s weight is forward over the front bar, and you’ve never ridden this kind of trail before. In about 0.5 seconds I was launched over the handlebar and landed on my head. I was wearing a helmet, but the real saving grace was the sand pit I landed in–it cushioned my impact and I emerged with just a sore neck. Fortunately.

A couple ofIMG_3069 days later Vikki and I went back for a hike on some of the other trails that were too sandy for bike travel. Once there we saw some lovely coastal lakes, tide pools and tall dunes up to about 25 feet tall.

IMG_3082The day was quiet and warm. No one else was around. I wanted to find an alligator but never spotted one.

IMG_3084We also encountered some very old twisted wire in an oddly arranged pattern that resembled a long rectangular grid. I thought this might be some relic of the old WW II program but I couldn’t be sure.  In any case we were off the beaten path and enjoyed a great walk.

 

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Love I have learned from dogs

 

Ok, I am not usually a fan of dogs. They bark too much, require daily attention, make travel out of town more complicated, chew up everything in sight  and generally just cost a lot of money. I am just not currently motivated to spend the time necessary to train a dog the obedience, respect, and cooperation needed for effective human companionship with me.

Having said all that, I was looking at our two dogs last night and reminded of the non-original thought that dogs can teach even us non-fans some things about love.  Dogs

Rarely ignore you (unless there’s a squirrel nearby)

Are eager to please

Give affection unreservedly

Forgive you seventy times seven (maybe they just don’t remember)

Stay with you until their last aliquot of strength

Are content with the basics: food, shelter, attentionStella and Vikki

 

Maybe I need to spend more time with dogs.

Emily gets a lick

Anna and Ruby

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Cyclisme dangereux

Jack N Back photo2 copyWell after watching some of the Tour de France this month,  I wanted to relate one of my own cycling near-death experiences. A couple of  months ago I was eager to go out in the early evening for a quick bike ride. It was typical southern summer weather: hot, humid, with frequent afternoon thunderstorm cells popping up. I’ve come to rely on one of the popular weather apps for the iPhone which typically does an excellent job of predicting when it’s going to rain. When I checked the app, it didn’t describe any nearby storm cells by radar, so I clicked in and started off.

My route from home always involves some early stinger hills up which I trudged. When I got to the top of that ridge, I noticed the sky to the southwest was getting darker-not a good sign. I went on for a few more minutes, but then the color ahead changed to a deep purple blue and began to boil, with thunder booming to my right. Time to turn around . . .I started to book it home, but in a couple of minutes those telltale fat plops of rain began to splat and sizzle on the pavement.  Oh, so I’m going to get a little wet, I thought, no big deal. Only a little wet turned into a lot of wet very quickly. This was one of those quintessential gully-washing, cats and dogs, mad Englishman downpours that obliterated all vision.  I struggled on and came to the top of the ridge. There wasn’t really any place to take cover, so I decided to go on, heading down and back home.

As I frequently tell my overweight patients, you can’t violate the laws of physics (calories in > calories out = fat). Well, water + wheel rims = poor braking on a bike. And did I mention the 30 mph cross-wind?  So now I’m screaming down the hill at about 25 mph with the road awash in rain, my brake calipers crushed with all my grip strength, the wind howling, unable to control my speed as I approach the last turn at the bottom. “There’s no way I’m going to make this turn” I think to myself. Slowly I start to drift right, toward the edge of the road surface. A large ditch beckons with hazards unknown. The whole bike starts to chatter, and then I have a small flash of inspiration. I clamp the top tube between my legs, decreasing the vibration, which allows me to just barely maneuver around the turn and into a safer, straighter stretch of roadway.  Drivers approach me in the opposite lane and must think I’m loony–but they don’t stop, either. I limp home, grateful to have avoided road rash, fractured bones or worse.  I don’t tell anyone how close I came to a major accident. Until now.

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Entering the silence

For many years I have periodically traveled to a Cistercian Trappist monastery for weekend retreats. When I lived in KY and TN I went to Gethsemani, best known as the former residence of Fr. Louis, i.e. Thomas Merton. Since moving to GA, I have now twice attended a similar retreat weekend at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA, which is actually a daughter house of Gethsemani.

Gethsemani trail
One of the roads through the pastures at Gethsemani. by missouri_gal via CC BY-NC 2.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These are silent retreats. Conversation is not exactly prohibited, but discouraged. Meals are eaten in silence (typically recorded music of Gregorian chant is played over speakers in the dining room).  Those wishing to converse are directed to specific areas outside designated for that purpose. Retreatants are invited to join the monks at the Liturgy of the Hours beginning with Vigils at about 0400 and ending with Compline around 1930.  At Gethsemani there are about 2500 acres of woods and fields, most of which are available to retreatants, laced with old logging roads and meandering trails. (Once I took a wrong turn in the woods and got very lost, very thirsty and very wet in a rainstorm before finally getting a ride back to the monastery).

A bed, desk, nightstand, and Bible are the standard offerings
A bed, desk, nightstand, and Bible are the standard offerings

In between those activities retreatants are free to pray, walk the grounds, and read, with  daily and Sunday mass attendance suggested. The food is basic as are the accommodations.

Why do I go?  Well, silence is a powerful tonic for the overloaded brain. Heck, even Jesus needed it (Mt 14:23). Silence is God’s first language. Silence is the space into which God can speak. Silence enables our faculties of contemplation and encourages a peaceful attitude toward life. I have spent weekends on retreat with only ordinary perceptions, and during other weekends have experienced profound and startling insights. gethsemani _chair2One gains a brief glimpse into the monastic rhythm of waking, praying, working, and sleeping, over and over, in the context of a small community of men pledged to spend the rest of their lives in this one place. I am powerfully drawn to this experience, as are many others-weekend retreats are typically full of people like myself.

There is a lack in modern life, some essence that is drowned out by our constant busyness, electronic distractions, and fear of isolation. I am convinced there is real goodness in that essence.  Going on retreat re-kindles the spark of the inner light that illuminates it. We ignore it at our peril.

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A good story

In WWII around Christmas time a hospital ship was bringing wounded and maimed Allied soldiers home from Europe to the United States. Also on the ship, in the holds below, were German prisoners of war. The Red Cross had delivered Christmas packages to the Allied troops before departure. Enroute, the wounded soldiers opened their packages to discover a panoply of candy, crackers and other assorted goods. Although most were consumed quickly, there was a sizable surplus. Several of the Allied wounded got together and convinced their comrades to send the extra bounty down to the German POWs.

When the Germans received this gift, they were overwhelmed with gratitude. They began talking among themselves, asking “what can we do to show our thanks?” Being prisoners, they had little in the way of possessions to share. After discussion, they hit upon an idea. Practicing quietly among themselves, they prepared their gift.

Eventually the ship approached the shores of the United States. Early one starlit evening, facing an uncertain future as prisoners in a foreign land, the German soldiers began to sing. In beautiful harmony they raised voices to their benefactors on the decks above with a tender rendition of “Silent Night” in German. Many voices strong, they continued their serenade throughout the evening, repaying the kindness shown by their onetime foes.

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Fountain pens

Who in the heck uses a fountain pen anymore? Well, I think they still have a place. Does anyone remember those fountain pens of our youth that we bought for school? They were made by Shaeffer, I think, with cheap metal caps and plastic bodies. They usually leaked ink, causing havoc on the page or in our pockets, with permanent ink to boot. You had to remember to replace the cap or the point would go dry. Ballpoint pens were cleaner, more convenient, less messy, and fairly reliable. Bic pens (from France) took over common usage-they were cheap enough that you could buy a dozen for pennies apiece. Disposable, they became utilitarian, undistinguished save for the color of the ink, discarded without a thought when out of ink or non-functional.

And they didn’t write worth a damn. . .the ink skipped, blobs would appear in parts of the letter strokes, the ball would stop turning, and it was a small but perceptible effort to push the ball across the page. And there’s just no gravitas when writing with a cheap ballpoint. If you want to enjoy your writing experience, you need to consider the fountain pen again.

I have always been intrigued by fountain pens. In part because they are old-fashioned, with a  lineage of craftsmanship . Also, they’re reliable. A well-made FP can last for decades with proper maintenance, repeatedly doing the job for which it was created. I recently paid about $18 on eBay for a vintage fountain pen made probably in the 1950s. IMG_2129After a little work, I got it sliding across the page just like the year it was made. And oh how it slides-a good FP has almost effortless motion on good paper with modern inks. One can individualize the experience though the choice of nib width from bold to extra-fine. There are even italic and music nibs which give a different ink width between upstroke or down. Flex nibs can narrow or broaden the delivered ink stream depending upon the pressure exerted.  With a fountain pen serving as an extension of the hand, tactile pleasure results from watching and feeling the output of one’s brain come to life.

Finally, there is the beauty of a great design. My first fountain pen as an adult was one I bought in Boston when I was a medical student there in the 1980s. IMG_2130The Parker 75 Cisele is a classic design which spoke to me from it’s shelf in that drugstore off Tremont Street close to Boston Common, though nowadays the pen feels too small in my somewhat large hands. Modern designs are varied and high in quality as well. I love my Conklin Duragraph FP seen here.

Conklin Duragraph Fountain Pen
Conklin Duragraph

It’s a $40 pen but isn’t it gorgeous? It writes like a dream. And it has a history: Conklin pens were used by Mark Twain in the nineteenth century.

Like many modern tools, some fountain pens have become icons of status more than functional tools of expression. I will probably never buy a Mont Blanc pen, for example. But there are so many wonderful pen manufacturers out there these days. There’s also a wealth of information available on how to use and care for a quality fountain pen. Goulet Pens, for example, has a “Fountain pen 101” video series which is quite good. Many other sources have posted helpful videos on YouTube as well. Recently I had trouble getting ink into a cartridge converter reservoir for my Lamy Safari (another $18 gem made in Germany). Some quick research on YouTube provided the answer-I wasn’t placing the nib deep enough into my ink bottle to fully cover the fill hole.

So fountain pens are a bit more trouble, a bit more money, but the payback in pleasure and beauty is well worth those disadvantages, in my opinion.  Happy writing!

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A new talent

My oldest and youngest children have the most musical aptitude in the family. Andrew, for example,  has trained to be a studio sound engineer and understands how to set up, edit, and produce professional grade  audio recordings.

The latest musical talent to emerge, however, is from Helen. She heard a keyboard track from a web comic she follows and taught herself how to play the piano version. Then, for her birthday, she got a ukulele and again, by herself, learned several chords and a couple of tunes. She’s a bit shy so I haven’t captured the piano piece yet, but below is  a sample of her strumming. It’s amazing what children can do when they are motivated. It’s a mystery to discover what motivates them. It’s an adventure to be a parent.

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