Top of the World ChallengeThe Summit of Saskatchewan
|By Pat Byers, VE6AAN
Special to The ARS Sojourner
|Since the days of the Heathkit HW-7, my first truly portable transceiver, I've been interested in QRP portable operations so when the Adventure Radio Society issued its Top of the World Challenge I was immediately intrigued. Imagine my disappointment, though, when I looked at the list of summits published in the ARS Sojourner and saw that the highest point in my home province of Alberta is Mount Columbia at 3747m/12294 feet. To reach that peak you not only need to be in top physical condition but you also need expert climbing skills and considerable experience in glacier trekking. This would certainly not be a destination for an acrophobic couch potato such as me.
However, a couple of weeks later when I revisited the list I noticed that the highest point in our neighbouring province, Saskatchewan, was within a days drive from here. Furthermore, the summit appeared to be in or near a provincial park so access would likely be easy. I figured this would be a challenge I and almost any other couch potato could successfully meet. The planning was begun.
Saskatchewan's summit is in an unusual geological and ecological area called the Cypress Hills. The short grass prairie of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan surrounds this oasis of rolling hills, plateaus, and evergreen forests mixed with fescue grasslands. Elevations in the Cypress Hills are comparable to Banff, Alberta in the Rocky Mountains and some of the flora and fauna are characteristic of those found hundreds of kilometres away in the foothills of the Rockies. The Cypress Hills are this way because the glaciers that scoured the central plains of North America left this region untouched.
For those of you who might wish to visit this beautiful and fascinating area, here are some informative URLs:
It had been more than 10 years since I had last visited this area so I was especially keen to go there. I began by contacting Park Area Naturalist Melody Nagel-Hisey at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park to confirm the location of the peak of Saskatchewan. It turned out that Saskatchewan's highest point was located on a cattle ranch just outside the park. Melody was kind enough to send me a copy of a topographical map along with the name and telephone number of the rancher who owned the land.
It was with some trepidation that I called Ross Bierbach to ask for permission to operate my radio on his land. How was I, a stranger, going to explain my hobby and the peculiar quest I was on? Well, I need not have been so nervous. Ross had heard of Ham radio and he was very accommodating of my request. His only concern was with the high potential for grass fires as a result of two years of drought conditions. His solution was to offer to drive me to the summit in his truck!
At this point I should explain to you, the readers, that this was not an adventure on the scale of Joe Street's (VE3VXO) Assault on Ishpatina Ridge in May 2001. If you haven't yet read about Joe's incredible achievement, which was chronicled in the July 2001 issue of the ARS Sojourner, please go here. You will be entertained. Guaranteed.
While few of us will even come close to matching Joe's perseverance and wilderness skills, I managed to top him in one respect. While looking at the list of provincial high spots I was astonished to learn that the Peak of Saskatchewan at 1468m/4816' is at almost twice the elevation of Ishpatina Ridge in Ontario (693m/2275') and is significantly higher than Manitoba's highest point (832m/2729'). In fact, Saskatchewan's summit is the highest provincial summit between Mount Iberville on the border between Québec and Labrador and the Rocky Mountains on the Alberta/British Columbia border.
The next stage in preparation was to select the equipment I would need to operate at the summit. I have a DK9SQ mast so that was a given. For simplicity, I chose to use a 40m inverted-vee which I could also use easily on 15m and on other bands with an Emtech ZM-2 tuner. Since all of my portable transceivers are monobanders and I still hadn't settled on a band or bands, I was grateful that a friend John Elliott VE6QSL generously offered his Yaesu FT-817. This would give me an opportunity to judge the buzz about the QRP world's latest toy. Another friend, Niels VE6NJK/TF3NJ lent me a GPS so I could locate the summit. Throw in a 7 A-h gel cell, a K1EL K20 keyer and keyboard, a Whiterook key and I was all set for a weekend of camping and Hamming.
On a hot Friday, August 24, 2001 my spouse, Jennifer, and I headed for the hills Cypress Hills, that is. As we traveled farther south and east in Alberta, we began to understand the concern of rancher Ross Bierbach. This is short grass prairie and dry land ranching in the best of times. However, parts of southeastern Alberta, southern Saskatchewan and northern Montana have seen far less than normal rainfalls the past two years. The grass was brown and grasshoppers were far too plentiful.
We began to worry about the situation down in the park. Already, many campgrounds in southern Alberta had been closed because of the extreme fire risk. Would we be able to camp in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park as we had planned? Well, when we arrived there we found the campgrounds were open but no open fires were permitted and all of the secondary roads and trails within the park boundaries had been closed. The situation was so grave that during the week following our trip the authorities in the park shut down the campgrounds.
In any event, we set up camp in a mature fir forest beside a running brook and were welcomed by a Great Horned Owl hooting from a branch above our picnic table. The site was more reminiscent of the Rocky Mountains than flat, dry Saskatchewan it was truly a different world in the Cypress Hills. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that Murphy had come along for the ride. I set up the station in the campground and tried my best to learn about the FT-817. It sure is small, with tiny buttons, lots of menus, and all. It took me the better part of Saturday afternoon to get the hang of it. Just when I thought I had it licked, one of the coax connectors on the cable that linked the radio and the tuner displayed an annoying intermittent fault and I didn't pack a spare. I decided to make the summit event 40m only.
On Sunday August 26 we packed up our camp and went to meet rancher Ross Bierbach and his daughter Mona for the first time. Ross and Mona escorted us up the Merry Flats School Road and through the Carry the Kettle First Nations Reserve to a flat, very dry, grassy plateau. A nondescript barbed wire fence gate was the entrance to the quarter section of land that was the site of Saskatchewan's summit. No signs, no flags, no tourists who would have known?
Because there had been a bit of rain two weeks previously, Ross allowed us to drive the Jetta into the field. That saved me from unpacking and reloading all of the Ham gear.
Pat Byers, VE6AAN, is an intrepid QRP operator who lives in Ponoka, AB