Fred VE1FA/KL7 and Helen VA1YL/KL7 - Activating a rare arctic island for IOTA

Nearly every summer since 1991 a group of us have activated a Canadian maritime island for the Radio Society of Great Britain's Islands On The Air (IOTA) contest. Next to ARRL's DXCC, the RSGB's IOTA is one of the most popular ongoing contests in amateur radio, with more than 1000 islands and island groups worldwide to collect. Although we always generate pileups and have fun, the islands we usually activate (like Fogo, St. Paul, Whitehead, Seal, Pictou, and Bon Portage) aren't at all rare.

Round Is. is one of the Walrus Is. group in the Bering Sea, west of mainland Alaska. Our daughter Margaret (VE2ZOO) has spent the last 3 summers collecting data on Round Island's amazing wildlife for the Alaska Department of Fish + Game (ADF+G). This summer Margaret invited us to visit her there and of course we said yes! While we were going primarily to see her and her wild arctic habitat, I couldn't resist checking on the group's IOTA status: it (NA-121) is very rare, with only 6.4% of all-time IOTA members having worked it. The last activation was many years ago.

We couldn't resist! We first obtained the necessary permits from ADF+G. Then we put together a "fits in the overhead bin" station. It consisted of an IC-706Mk2G, tiny switching power supply, 70' of quality mini-8 foam co-ax, and a common feed double 40m-20m dipole made with tough, light 24-ga kapton-coated silvered wire. Total station weight, with all accessories: 11.4 lbs. This station, nicely padded with socks, shirts, and long johns rode in my suitcase in the overhead bins of most of the 10 flights needed to get us there and back. The only exception was the ancient 6-seat Piper to Togiak that didn't have bins, overhead or anywhere else.

Because there are no trees on Round Is. we also had to bring a duffel bag that contained 7 x 4' lengths of fiberglass and aluminum masting, 1/8" Dacron guy cord and halyard, plus aluminum stakes and hardware. Our boots and sleeping bags rounded up the bag.

July 3, 2018. We arrived in the Yup'ik village of Togiak, on Alaska's west coast (Bristol Bay) and contacted the driver who was supposed to takes us by boat the 35 miles out to Round Is. the next morning. After a night filled with anticipation (and a great dinner of king salmon caught 200 yards away a few hours earlier) the boat driver decided not to go. July 5th was a go, and we were off in his light launch, skipping across the big swells pushed by the 225 hp outboard, and passing a big Russian tug and barge selling tax-free oil to one and all. The huge hump of Round Is. (it's 1400' tall, with a broad, low plateau on the east side) grew and grew, until we finally nosed into Boat Cove. The island, clothed in waist- to chest-deep grass was a most brilliant green up to the raw rock and tundra near the mountain top. The entire population of 6 (4 visiting photographers, and Amber and Margaret, the ADF+G staff) came down to greet us.

There is only a single small dwelling/office/lab on the island which is Margaret and Amber's, but for us Margaret had set up their auxiliary "Weather Port", a Quonset-style tent, tall enough for a small table and chair, making it both our dorm and radio shack.

Antenna setup went smoothly, except for the strong cold wind and occasional blasts of fine rain...and the deep grass that would "disappear" anything you dropped! The island's power for computers, satellite links, lights, and the Explore.com walrus "critter cams" was produced in a shed with triply redundant wind turbines, solar panels, and methanol-powered fuel cells. Unfortunately, the shed was close to our tent and it generated a continuous and evil S-5 to 7 buzz across 20m. Disconnecting the co-ax showed the buzz was entering the IC-706 entirely via the antenna. Added to this was "audio QRM": one of the shed's wind turbines had bad bearings, which whined loudly when the wind blew, which was 90% of the time. We could move neither our Weather Port nor the power shed, so we just had to work with it.

Before leaving home we sent Bill NG3K, who posts IOTA Announced Operations online, our planned operating dates and approximate frequencies, which he posted and passed on to other DX sites, so when we went on the air crowds were waiting!

On 7 July our first "CQ CQ CQ from Round Is., NA-121. This is VE1FA/KL7 standing by " went out on 20m from the Weather Port. Propagation on 20m was poor, but the ops who responded were very excited! I was surprised by one of the first calls...very strong, like he was next door, from Kamchatka. Wait a minute, Kamchatka IS next door!

There were many very faint JAs, who would probably have filled our log, but unfortunately for them, Round Island's 1400' mountain was exactly between Japan and our antenna, blocking RF up to about 50° elevation. Fortunately for North America and Europe, we had a clear 25-mile wide ocean takeoff to the east from our antenna which was about 100' above sea level.

West coast Vs and Ks were relatively easy to work, but many central US and EU stations got through also, especially I, D, F, SM, OM, and R....but strangely, only a single UK station... on the Isle of Man! Our biggest disappointment: no Canadian Maritime stations were logged, although Gary VE3XN was there with a good signal...like he always is!

We spent much of our week with Margaret, hiking, photographing, and observing the myriad flowers, birds, foxes, Steller sea lions and walrus haulouts, so between that, the power shed buzz, and the poor propagation we only logged 179 unique QSOs. We were pleased to see that about 60% of our contacts were from outside North America, so our little dipoles and 100W worked pretty well! Already (a month later) we've received direct cards from about a quarter of the stations logged. Our thanks to those who persisted and made a QSO with us, and our sincere regrets to those who tried unsuccessfully to work us, especially those we almost got before the QSB whisked you away!

QSL cards are via the buro or direct to VA1YL/VE1FA's QRZ address. If you're not sure you're in the Round Is. log, please email VE1FA first to verify!

If you would like a live glimpse of Round Is., Google "Explore walrus cam", and watch the 1500-3000 lb "big boys" lounging on Main Beach of this very special island.

Figure Legends

  1. Margaret, ADF+G technician (and VE2ZOO) observing walrus haulouts (pink masses on beach) from halfway up Round Is.
  2. VE1FA/KL7 operating in the Weather Port tent. VA1YL's laptop died, so we paper logged. Lamp is home brewed: an ABS pipe cap with LEDs glued inside attached to 3/16" copper tubing screwed to the 706's mobile mount holes. Think the July wind off the Bering Sea is warm? Look at my clothes...
  3. L to R: Fred VE1FA/KL7; Helen VA1YL/KL7; and Margaret VE2ZOO
  4. Our "Weather Port" QTH and noisy power shed. Note shadow of our antenna.
  5. Our 20m-40m double dipole antenna. The fine kapton wire makes the actual antennas nearly invisible.