Charon’s Garden, OK – 2005

 A photographic slideshow (pdf format) of this area can be downloaded here.

Wichita Mountains

It would be an exaggeration to say that the Wichita Mountains contain the most beautiful landscapes in the American Southwest, but not a large exaggeration. With buffalo, elk, longhorn cattle – and at least one noisy bobcat – all set against a backdrop of rugged beauty, it’s easy to imagine that it’s 1805, not 2005. During my two days here, I didn’t see one other human or hear any manmade sounds – no distant cars, no airplanes flying over. Nothing but the wind and birds – until nightfall, but that’s another story.

There are two campgrounds within the refuge and it is to one of these that most visitors come with their families to take in the scenery.

But located at the western end of the refuge is an area known as Charon’s Garden. Since I first found out about this area several years ago, I’ve wanted to camp there and get off the beaten path a bit. But camping is restricted to 10 permits a week and the timing of my trips to Oklahoma hasn’t coincided with availability of permits. At the end of April, I was offered a 3-week UNIX course in Oklahoma City to begin in May. After making flight reservations, I decided to call the Refuge on the off chance that just maybe my name could find its way onto one of their permits. The answer to this question had me emptying my suitcase of all nonessentials and repacking it with a small tent and other Charon-bound accoutrements, including of course, my KX1.

Charon’s Gardenbuffalo

The Charon’s Garden portion of Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge consists of roughly 12 square miles of stunning scenery. There are no campsites per se. You hike till you find a place to your liking and then pitch your tent. Two trails enter this area, both of them short 1 or 2-hour walks that barely scratch the surface of what the area has to offer. My plan was to take the longer trail “for a while” and then veer off to the west in search of higher elevations that contained trees to support my dipole.

The trail follows a creek for half a mile – very narrow and through dense vegetation. It was so overgrown that hiking with a backpack was difficult for several stretches. Eventually the trail and the creek parted ways and the terrain became open, rocky and dry. There were occasional water crossings due to the previous day’s storm and lots of water had pooled in the tops of the numerous boulders that contained depressions.

I left the trail after about two miles and headed west over rocks and some grassy areas, slowly going up in elevation. I was surrounded by many numerous peaks and wanted to be above the smaller ones, both for the tent-flap view and for RF propagation purposes.

purposes. Lots of buffalo were about. Though not close to me, they were plentiful in the various pastures that the increasing elevation allowed me to see. Wildflowers were in bloom, hawks soared overhead and, for all intents and purposes, I had the place to myself.

By early afternoon there were only three peaks higher than me, and a small grove of trees just a few hundred yards ahead. I decided to make my camp there. My tent was a new one and, like the KX1, this was its maiden voyage. Weighing only four pounds, it allows me to carry my radio gear and still be lighter than when I backpacked with my previous tent w/o radio. Set-up was a snap and it felt good to have reached such a destination: nice views, support for my antenna, shade and elevation. At about 20 feet tall, the trees in this grove were the highest I’d seen since starting the hike. In the Pacific Northwest they’d be considered bonsai trees but I’m in the Wichita Mountains and grateful to have them.

in tentThe dipole went up almost as easily as the tent and I was ready to get on the air. But…..I started the hike with three liters of water and was now down to one liter. I still had to boil water for dinner and needed water for the rest of the afternoon and tomorrow’s hike back to the car. Five minutes back down the trail I’d noticed a small trickle of water flowing over rocks. It dripped at one point, forming a “micro-waterfall” about 4 inches high. There was no way to fit my water bottle under it so I ended up filling my water bottle’s cap and then transferring that 2 or 3 tablespoons to the bottles. After 20 minutes of this idiocy, I have a tired arm and three liters of water.

CQ de AE5X/p

With the essentials finally taken care of, it was time for some fun. The 40-meter dipole was just shy of 20 feet high and was fed with twinlead. At the tent-end of the twinlead was my Elecraft KX1 with its built-in autotuner and 30m band module. A Whiterook MK-33 paddle, lightweight headphones and 8 AA alkaline batteries completed the set-up. I wish I could describe how it feels to be “off the grid” and away from all signs of civilization – even if only for a while – and then to turn on a tiny rig like the KX1 and have CW signals filling the headphones, knowing that in a matter of seconds the geographical separation between me and The World is going to disappear.

I tuned around a bit to confirm that the rig’s tuner could match the antenna on all three bands. It was 1.3 on 30 meters and even better on 20m and 40m. I decided to start on 40m and called CQ on 7040 kHz. Curt WD5JCU answered from Dallas at 1900Z. We exchanged 589 reports and chatted briefly. There was very little activity on 30m so I went to 20m and found lots of stations and a few contests in progress. Over the next hour I worked stations in California, Maryland, Idaho, Ohio and Virginia. I tried 30m periodically but never could find much activity there and my CQs went unanswered. Back on 40m, I worked Chris N8AI in Houston who was housesitting and operating from a Lazy Boy. What a contrast between the two of us! Art W8PBO in West Virginia was curious about my set-up and seemed amazed – he wanted to know how high my dipole was and which rig I was using. He has a K1 but was using a QRO rig for this QSO.

The thing about camping on a peak is that you’re exposed to wind. The morning’s slight intermittent breeze had by now become a steady wind. I didn’t really mind it that much but it did make the tent noisy and I was hoping for some relief from it overnight. Steve AA5TB answered my CQ as I was pondering this and I posed the question to him. He checked the online weather report for my area and gave me the good news that the winds would decrease. Steve was using an Argonaut V with an inverted L and had a great signal into the Wichita Mountains, reporting that he’d been here too.

I was hoping to work a little DX from the tent and was not disappointed. After dinner and a little early-evening photography as the sun slipped beneath the horizon and the air turned markedly cooler, I crawled into my sleeping bag, zipped the tent-flap shut and started tuning around on 20 meters. MU/DF5AU was calling CQ from Guernsey. I sent some RF his way and he acknowledged it on the first call. Yeah man – dat’s what I’m talking ‘bout! Not to be outdone, YV5DTJ in Venezuela and CG1FO in Nova Scotia also found their way into my log. Well there you have it – 4 countries from a little bitty radio in a little bitty tent…..but wait – there’s more! As I was getting ready to get some shut-eye, there’s a fast & loud CQ from Guayaquil, Ecuador. It’s Al HC2SL who I’d worked 2 weeks ago from New York while mobile QRP with my DSW. He asks, ”John – u QRP agn?” I said “Yep”. And with that, the rig and I both went QRT for the evening.

Peaceful Slumber – Not!

Although I don’t understand the acoustics, there is something about a tent that allows it to act as a sound amplification device. I’m sure that better brains than mine can explain this phenomena – I simply know that it exists. At 2 am, a loud scratching sound awakened me both immediately and completely, eyes wide open, heart pounding. The sound continued – I wasn’t dreaming. Was it a wild pig? A rabid raccoon? A rattlesnake? I needed to find out for sure or my imagination would concoct even worse scenarios. Flashlight in hand, I slowly unzipped a just large-enough portion of the tent’s flap to allow me to peer out and see….a bobcat, ten feet away. I looked at him; he looked at me. I looked at him looking at me; he looked at me looking at him. I yelled something; he hauled ass outta there.

Dawn the next morning found me coffee-less, yawning and grateful to have lived to tell of the near-attack of the legendary Man-Eating Bobcat of the Wichitas. To celebrate my manly feat of survival, I turned on my KX1 and worked Dick N4HAY and Vic WA6MCL. Fortunately, band conditions were terrible with very tough copy so neither station had to suffer through my tale as you have just done.

Thanks to those of you who answered my call. I hope to see you down the logbook soon.