As seen in QST "Up in Front" (Aug. 2006)
The Devil's Golf Course
Ever seeking to expand my operating experiences, a trip to Death Valley has been in the cards for some time. Only a single day's drive from the home qth, I packed up the XYL and the dog and headed off on an impromptu opXpedition to operate from the lowest point in the western hemisphere. OpXpedtions are my excuse to operate from interesting and bizarre places in and around California.
November is an ideal time to visit Death Valley as temperatures are very reasonable (72/45) compared to summertime (120+/70). I had visited Death Valley in the mid 70's and had an idea of where I wanted to operate. Badwater is the lowest point in the Valley at minus 282 feet below sea level and contains one of the largest saltpans in North America. Named the Devils Golf Course, crystallized salts compose the jagged formations of a forbidding landscape deposited by ancient salt lakes and shaped by winds and rain. It is the most desolate portion of Death Valley where temperatures typically reach 120 degrees in the summertime.
Seen from a distance, the Devil's Golf Course salt flat and my objective.
Approaching from the north, we branched off the main road to seek the lowest point in the valley accessible by car. Where this road seems to end it actually turns to the south (left) and continues on for some distance across the saltpan.
Using my GPS receiver, we drove until we found the lowest point we could which, as it turned out, was also the end of the road. I immediately started setting up the half wave 17 meter dipole I had constructed and briefly tested the day before. It was a very simple antenna fed with ladder line and supported by a 20 foot reinforced telescoping fishing pole. I walked out on the saltpan and found a suitable place to pound in a 4 foot piece of rebar to hold the base of the pole. The rig was a Yaesu FT-847.
The dipole was in an inverted V configuration so that the antenna itself acted as the guys for the pole keeping it reasonably supported. Since there was no wind at the time, I did not need to add additional guys. The feed point was at 20 feet and the ends of the antenna were about 6 feet off the ground. You can just see an insulator on the right and the black guy rope attached to it. I found holes in the salt that I used to tie down the guys.
Walking across the saltpan was tricky. The salt formations are very hard and have sharp jagged edges. You can well imagine how the early pioneers felt seeking to cross this area with their wagons. Hell for some, heaven for me! Operating on top of pure salt hundreds of feed deep gave me an excellent ground. Maybe someone can tell me if this is as close to a "perfect ground" as one can achieve. Judging by the excellent performance of the antenna from the signal reports I was receiving, it must have been close.
I operated for only 1.5 hours (10:30-12:00 pst) and made 55 contacts. Notable contacts were VK4BX in Queensland Australia, and WB2CWO maritime mobile halfway between California and Hawaii. Both gave me excellent signal reports--proof that RF can travel uphill as well as down. My listening conditions were excellent; no man-made noise whatsoever. Easily the quietest conditions I have ever experienced. Most received signals were 57 to 30db over S9. I operated "rag-chew mode" rather than contest mode as that's what 17 meters is all about (in my opinion). And, most people were very interested in what I was doing and I was more than happy to describe it to anyone wanting to know. From a personal perspective, operating from the lowest point in the western hemisphere, and talking to all the great contacts, was a high-point for me in the enjoyment of our wonderful hobby.
Seen above is the proof of my location from the screen of my GPS. The readings were taken at the base of the antenna after I completed operating.
Death Valley Logbook:
Destined to become a classic qsl.