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Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes in the winter: A great place for a ham radio adventure

| Updated Jun 19, 2023

What's the saying about being busier than a one-armed paper hanger? Whatever it is, the phrase kept coming to me this weekend as, in 26 degree weather made even colder by a stiff westerly wind off Lake Michigan, I was trying to sting up an antenna outside my RV at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

I was essentially one-handed.

Trying to unsnarl my wires
Trying to unsnarl my wires

Still recovering from my Dec. 2 total shoulder replacement, I had just been cleared by the doctor to drive, but was left with strict instructions to go easy – very easy – on the right arm and shoulder.

I was participating in an amateur radio event called National Parks On The Air commemorating the Centennial year for the National Parks Service. The goal is for ham radio operators to use portable radio gear in NPS sites to make as many two-way radio contacts with other amateurs around the world, this promoting National Parks and showcasing the amateur radio hobby.

There are 59 National Parks and dozens more NPS sites, ranging from historic battlefields to trails, scenic rivers, seashores and lakeshores and more – 483 in all. I opted to make the 250 mile trip from my Michigan home to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore,  made up of 64 miles of beaches along Lake Michigan, two islands, 26 inland lakes, more than 50,000 acres of land, and the monumental 450-foot sand dunes from which it gets its name.

Jennifer and I have been there many times over the years, but all of them in the summer and fall.

This was our first winter visit and I wanted to activate the location on January 1, joining about 100 other amateurs who were doing similar things across the country at other NPS properties. Thousands more hams scoured the airwaves looking for our signals, making contacts that qualify in various awards based on how many NPOTA stations one makes two-way exchanges with.

But before I could even turn on my radio, I had to set up an antenna system. With one arm. In the cold.

The antenna system I used consisted of a four foot long fiber glass pole that telescopes up, section by section, to 40 feet high. I found a post on the edge of the parking lot that I could secure the pole to and, mostly using my left hand to lift and my right hand to screw tight the telescoping sections as they rose up, I was able to get the pole to its full height with no problems.

My Raodtrek became my ham radio "shack"
My  RV became my ham radio “shack”

Then it came time to sting out the antennas. There were two lengths of wire I had to unwind, securing them in an intverted Vee shape. The first went just fine. I tied it off and started on the second. Then I had problems. The wind caught it just right and, suddenly, it was tangled. I had to untangle tt pretty much with one hand. One gloveless hand, since gloves made it too cumbersome to straighten the wire.

Eventually, I straightened and unkinked the wire on the second leg and secured it, too.

Then the coaxial cable feedline tangled. It was a really stiff wind. Cold, too.

Same process. Lots of muttering from me. Jennifer, inside the warm RV, once said “Everything okay?” I muttered an answer it was good she didn't hear.

But the coax was only 40 feet long. Slowly, it unraveled and I was able to feed it inside the Roadtrek, where I connected it to my Elecraft KX3 ham radio transceiver, which in turn was powered from a direct connection to my Roadtrek's 12 volt battery system. I plugged in the computer I use to control parts of the radio and I was in business, once I stopped shivering.

The Alde radiant heating system had the Roadtrek a very comfortable 72 degrees. Jennifer made me a cup of hot chocolate as I started making contacts.

In two hours, I worked 117 stations in 33 states, three Canadian provinces and Puerto Rico. I had a ball.

I parked  at what is known as the Dune Climb area. The Dune Climb is the main attraction for the kids who love to run and roll down the dunes in the summer. Located just about 5 miles north of Empire on M-109, you can see it on the west side of the road. Visitors love to bring their children and friends to the Dune Climb because they remember how much fun they had playing in the dunes when they were here as children. Jennifer and I had climbed in many times with our kids and grandkids over many summers.

Kids love to slide down the dunes in the winter
Kids love to slide down the dunes in the winter

But in the winter, it is equally as popular. For sledding.

Dozens of kids, bundled up like Pillsbury doughboys and carrying all manners of sleds and toboggans and snowboards, made the long trip up the snow covered slopes, stopping often to rest. The trip down was much faster. Many tumbled down after losing their sleds on the steep decline, their laughter and squeals carried on the wind to the parking lot below.

I played ham radio for a little over two hours. Taking the antenna system down was much simpler, with no tangles.

Then we drove around, exploring the area and enjoying the beauty of winter. The dark, sullen sky spit snow flurries at us all day long. Roads were relative clear but even on the side roads we took that were snow covered, they were easy to navigate. We do a lot of winter RVing – including a couple of drives in white out conditions – and have never had any handling issues with the Roadtrek.

As I shared in my post on Empire, MI a couple days ago, no campgrounds were open in the area and the boondocking places we hoped to camp were snowed in with unplowed access roads. The Roadtrek can handle a few inches but a foot of snow? That's a bit much and those boondocking roads were shut down tight.

Some of the dunes are as high as 450 feet
Some of the dunes are as high as 450 feet

The inn we stayed in the first night turned out to be pretty disappointing. It was run by very nice people but it was old and noisy. You could hear every step on the creaky floors above and every voice and sound through the paper thin walls. Guess the white noise machines in each room should have been a dead giveaway. And since this was not exactly peak time, the bed sheets were dusty, which didn't fare well for Jennifer's allergies.

There's a special beauty to the shoreline brought by the winter snow
There's a special beauty to the shoreline brought by the winter snow

So we left there Friday night and made our way down the coast on M22 to the harbor town of Frankfurt. It is a summer place and seemed largely deserted on New Year's Day. We booked a room in a new condo resort right on the water before making our way back home on Saturday after a restful and quiet night's sleep.

It was a good shakedown trip for me after the surgery and a welcome break from the cabin fever that plagued me during the month of recuperation following the surgery. It was also great preparation for our upcoming winter campout at the Tahquamenon Falls State Park in Michigan's Upper Peninsula on Jan. 23.

Think I'll bring along the ham radio gear for that event, too. The North Country Trail is a multistate hiking trail administered by the NPS and it runs right through Tahquamenon Falls, making it another place I can activate for National Parks on The Air.

Mike Wendland

Published on 2016-01-03

Mike Wendland is a multiple Emmy-award-winning Journalist, Podcaster, YouTuber, and Blogger, who has traveled with his wife, Jennifer, all over North America in an RV, sharing adventures and reviewing RV, Camping, Outdoor, Travel and Tech Gear for the past 12 years. They are leading industry experts in RV living and have written 18 travel books.

2 Responses to “Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes in the winter: A great place for a ham radio adventure”

January 04, 2016at7:40 am, Kathleen Howell said:

How very, very cool!! I’ve never visited the Dunes in the winter – hadn’t thought about how awesome the sledding would be. And connecting with others over the radio had to be a blast.. 🙂

January 03, 2016at9:33 am, Charmaine said:

I guess the Sleeping Bear campgrounds were closed?

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