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AIH124 DXpedition Report

One of the few pros of the pandemic is the liberty to work remotely, and ideally, combine it with DXing. So that's what I did in Aihkiniemi. It is not only the best AM DXing base, but also one of the most remote locations with a fast internet connection. Focusing full time on work and scanning the AM dial during the remaining waking hours was a very intensive experience, but well worth it. Constantly changing conditions resulted in new catches from nearly every continent.

From a DXing perspective, work was of course a major constraint. I figured it would be easier if I was up there just by myself, so I spent two weeks in solitary confinement in Aihkiniemi – except for a happy surprise encounter halfway into the expedition.

I was planning to follow propagation close enough to know which antenna azimuth would be best at any given time, but otherwise I would mostly just let my recordings accumulate, and research them more thoroughly on some later date. Hopefully that opportunity will present itself before retirement, and only then will I know how plentiful the haul turns out to be. As it turned out, however, I wasn't able to resist the urge to review the most promising DX sessions immediately either already in Aihkiniemi, or soon afterwards at home.

Mika at Pasila Railway Station
Waiting for the IC 265 train at Pasila station in Helsinki.

Logistics for the AIH133 DXpedition followed a time-tested routine. No flying like on the previous DXpedition AIH124, but instead I packed my Toyota Auris, drove it to Pasila Railway Station in Helsinki, and loaded it onto the train.

Normally I would have departed on Friday evening, but all car-carrier wagons for the overnight train had been sold out long ago, so I had to postpone my departure to Saturday.

Living as we are with the COVID-19 pandemic, I bought snacks to consume in the safety and comfort of my of own cabin without resorting to the overpriced goodies of the restaurant car.

Intercity 265 stayed on schedule and arrived in Rovaniemi before dawn. A private cabin in the sleeping car guaranteed a good night sleep, so I felt well rested before the 400-kilometer drive further north. Nothing seemed to be open early on a Sunday morning, but a couple of chocolate bars were enough for the first few hundred kilometers.

Spruce forest near Saariselkä
A deep-frozen spruce forest near Saariselkä ski resort in Inari at dusk.

One of my soundtracks on the deserted and snowy Highway 4 (E75) was "USA and Canada on the Air," a nostalgic potpourri of station identifications and iconic commercial spots from North American stations. This LP-length recording was produced by the Finnish DX Association decades ago, before the internet, and is made up of recordings collected by Finnish DXers during their travels around North America. The good old days... Originally it was sold only as a cassette tape, but I had burned it on a CD.

The airwaves – even old recordings – can be a decent substitute for real travel, as exercising wanderlust remains constrained by the pandemic. And this particular recording brought back many memories of both previous Lapland DXpeditions and roadtrips in the U.S.

As has become common, Inari served as the last pit stop to fuel the car, order a hot meal, and get groceries for the upcoming 13 days. The final stretch to Aihkiniemi was smooth driving in nice winter weather. Just before the trip I had to buy new winter tires, and traction on both icy and snowy surfaces worked like a dream.

Northern lights on February 3
Northern lights on February 3, shot at around 4 a.m. CLICK on the thumbnail to open a full-size version of any photo in this report.

During the entire expedition, the weather remained very predictable, with temperatures from -10 C to -30 C (30 to -20 F). Skies were mostly clear, and as the polar night was over, the sun inched slightly above the horizon, each day marginally higher up than before.

DXing in Lapland in early February was a novel experience for me, but actually in terms of daylight, the conditions were just a mirror image of early November, so a climax at dusk and dawn occurred at the same times as on AIH124.

I arrived in Aihkiniemi at 14:20 local time. The first evening was spent setting up my gear, installing a brand new router (a wireless 50 Mbit/s connection over 4G), shoveling the driveway clear of fresh snow, cleaning a bit inside, and simply getting used to this fabulous new daily cycle of following openings on the AM dial.

Northern lights on February 3
This is the other end of the same arch of the aurora borealis, shot towards the east.

Days in Aihkiniemi are a combination of the unexpected and the predictable. The daily cycle of propagation creates a framework for every other activity here. A surprise opening can delay a meal or any other secondary task. Then there are certain times of the day, such as the slots for local station ID on the Japanese NHK networks, which act like pacemakers, recurring at exactly the same time day to day.

Some household chores are a must. During the following days I inspected as many antennas as I could, trying to schedule online meetings so that I could spend the nicest part of the day wading in knee-deep snow, cleaning the antennas of snow and ice, and rewarding my sweaty self with a sauna afterwards. Occasionally this drudgery felt quite extreme, because in the most difficult sections it took almost an hour to cover one kilometer of antenna maintenance. What's the point, you might ask. Sometimes in the freezing forest I also questioned the sanity of this all.

Here are the directions of the 14 Beverage-type antennas at Aihkiniemi, each of them about one kilometer (3,000 ft) long. The longest one is the 270-degree wire, approximately 1,200 meters.

Antenna directions at Aihkiniemi

I wasn't the only DXer in Lapland at the time. There were parallel DX efforts 100 kilometers away in Lemmenjoki, where LEM443 (Jopi Nyman & Jussi Suokas) and LEM444 (Hannu Tikkanen) enjoyed similar mediocre or even below average propagation conditions.

EDIT: I need to take that back. After inspecting all recordings, I have to admit that the total haul of new stations turned out to be well above average for a two-week DXpedition.

The Aihkiniemi cabin on a cold night.
The Aihkiniemi cabin on a cold night.

Most of the time the geomagnetic field was restless, which implied sudden shifts in propagation, and generally rather short useful openings. One of the highlights of the expedition was February 11, when U.S. East Coast stations were quite strong for a few hours, and I finally caught the TIS station of the season, WQFG689 from New Jersey on 1710 AM.

Another neat day was the following day, February 12, when New Zealand offered some strong signals for hours. It remains to be seen what treasures are hidden in my recordings from that afternoon.

To give an idea of how well AM stations can be heard in Aihkiniemi during the rare good conditions, here are a few examples recorded during AIH133.

Aurora borealis straight above
Aurora like a green veil arching above the sky.

Alaskan stations are a rare treat for DXers just about anywhere in the world – except in the northern parts of the Nordic countries. And in Siberia, if there are any DXers there. Sometimes during the daylight hours KBRW (click the station names to open a sound file) from Barrow (officially called Utqiagvik) on 680 AM at a distance of 4,400 km can be the strongest station on the dial. During a solar storm, KBRW may however be totally inaudible for days.

Another classic station from Alaska is KJNP from "North Pole" (1170 AM), about 5,100 km away (BTW, the distance to the real North Pole would be less than half of that). Hearing it is always quite nostalgic, because the station ID has remained the same for decades, and back in 2007 I even visited the station during a reporting assignment in Alaska.

Here's one more Alaskan station, KAGV (1110 AM). Two years ago I made a video, which demonstrates the sound quality of stations from Alaska and Hawaii. There are also other videos from Aihkiniemi on my YouTube channel, and especially this one is a must for anyone interested in knowing more about Aihkiniemi.

Landscape around an antenna pointing at 46 degrees.

Yes, Hawaii, another pretty exclusive treat for most AM DXers. Here are samples of KLHT Honolulu (1040 AM), KKEA (1420 AM), and KREA (1540 AM), and my favorite, thanks to its fabulous Hawaiian format, KKNE (940 AM). I sometimes listen to this station just for fun, if nothing new can be heard. All of these Hawaiian stations are located almost 10,000 km away.

To put this into perspective, these aren't everyday stations even here. But as we do have a 1-km-long Beverage antenna pointing north toward Alaska and Hawaii, when the ionosphere cooperates, the results can be pretty neat.

What if a solar storm hits? During much of AIH133 conditions were quite disturbed. This is usually the best time to look for stations direct south. Here's a sample of Rádio Moçambique with local programming from Cabo Delgado (1224 AM), about 9,200 km away.

Tree branch fell on an antenna wire
An urgent but easy repair task: Remove the fallen branch to let the antenna rise back up. Reindeer tracks on the left.

And here's another station from the same direction, Radio Free Africa (1377 AM) from Mwanza in Tanzania, about 8,000 km away.

And of course we listen to a lot of Asian stations. DXers here tend to be picky when identifying stations. Whenever a local station ID can be heard at some point, it is the preferred option to identify the station. It can take years to hear it at the rare moment when a local ID is announced, but it is much more rewarding. Here's an example from Thailand. The national broadcaster's regional outlet in Phitsanulok (1026 AM) giving a local ID just before sign-off.

Waiting for a local ID has the added benefit that you can distinguish between different local transmitters on the same frequency. This applies especially to NHK stations in Japan. We always want to catch a local ID before sending a reception report to an NHK station.

Mika DXing
DXing solo has its benefits – less cramped in the cabin.

Even a rare target feels twice as good when you happen to hear a local ID. Newstalk ZB is a nationwide network in New Zealand, but occasionally it airs local breaks for local commercial spots. Here's the "most common" (although, no Kiwi can really be considered common at a distance of over 16,000 km) Newstalk ZB station from Wellington on 1035 AM, recorded during AIH133.

None of the above stations are personally new catches, so they are not listed in the AIH133 DXpedition Log. That log is in frequency order, but there's also a version of the log in chronological order as a PDF file. It would be just too much work to start listing all the hundreds and hundreds of more or less regular catches, but I still thought that these examples would be interesting enough to post here as representative samples of what can normally be heard in Aihkiniemi. Even a newcomer can expect to hear these stations and hundreds more in Aihkiniemi, if only one knows which of the 14 available Beverage antennas is the smartest choice at any given time, and if the solar weather is at least moderately favorable. And actually I made an exception for North America, listing also the more common stations by call letters in the log. This highlights how many regular catches are encountered when chasing for rarities.

Video about antenna cleaning
Click the image to open the video about antenna cleaning on YouTube.

Overall, DXing in a location above the Arctic Circle is much more exciting than on lower latitudes. The AM band can change wildly from total silence to a great opening and back. Each day and night are different. That's what makes DXing in the Arctic highly addictive.

And finally, an educational video. If you ever think of DXing in Aihkiniemi, you need to take into account that it is physically hard labor, meaning you need to be fit. We expect every DX crew to check the Beverage antennas – since we prefer to catch radio stations to catching moose and reindeer. In the winter it means walking in deep snow on difficult terrain, and cleaning the wires of snow and ice.

Traditionally I have kept a detailed diary of developments on the dial, but this time it was more superficial. Here's a brief summary of propagation conditions day by day based on my rudimentary observations:

End of the 46-degree antenna wire.
This is where our antenna at 46 degrees ends. Next stop: Hokkaido.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

I had my receivers set up well before NHK2 sign-off at 1540 UTC. I noticed a few semi-rare stations, but no personal new ones. Some common Brazilian stations were heard after 2200 UTC.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Pretty good conditions to Brazil around 2200–0100 and again at 0400–0500 UTC, followed by the Pacific Northwest at dawn. My best catch was KAFY Bakersfield CA 1100 AM, previously unheard in Finland, and presumably running on daytime power through the night.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

North American stations faded out by 0800 UTC. Some common Pacific stations during the day (such as Tonga 1017 AM, V7AB 1098 AM, and a few Kiwis around 1130-1230 UTC). Plenty of Thai stations around 1700 UTC, their typical closing time. Geomagnetic instability was reflected in the strong showing of some common African stations in the evening.

Mika with an icy face
My icy appearance after a couple of hours of cleaning antennas.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Some Brazilian and Argentinian stations persisted quite long, until 0700 UTC. In the afternoon around 1400 UTC Hawaiian and Alaskan stations were pretty strong, and I was happy to nail the latest newcomer, KABN from Kenai on 960 AM. According to the Finnish DX Association rules, KABN counts as the same station as KKEN 980 AM, which I heard and verified in the late 80's, but nevertheless it was nice to hear that long dormant AM licenses can still be revived and returned on the air.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

A little bit of everything. For North America, the focus shifted from the Great Lakes at 0600 UTC to the Pacific Nortwest by 0700 UTC. KSAM Whitefish MT on 1240 AM was a welcome new station for me. A couple of strong New Zealand stations in the afternoon, and NHK2 stations strong at 1540 UTC. In the evening, NHK1 was good at 2000 UTC, and WLQV Detroit MI 1500 AM was audible from 2055 UTC, two hours before local sunset. Still no real daytimers noted.

Aurora with moonlight illuminating the roadside
Nighttime magic in moonlight over the road to Aihkiniemi.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Overnight propagation was poor, but there was a modest peak in the morning around 0600–0700 UTC. North American signals made a decent comeback around 1300-1400 UTC, after which it was time to focus on Asia. Japanese NHK2 stations happened to be strong at the sign-off time of 1540 UTC, and this very narrow window of opportunity (local identifications can be heard only twice in 24 hours) resulted in two new catches.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

The morning peak by North American stations was better than on previous days, and stations were heard on every frequency down to the lower end of the dial. It was also a welcome change to hear stations from New England, although no new ones. During the day the focus was – as usual – on the Pacific Northwest, especially Oregon. The last stations from the west faded out after 1400 UTC, when Asian stations were already quite strong. Many Thai stations were heard already around 1300 UTC and Newstalk ZB from Wellington (1035 AM) was strong around 1200 UTC.

Päivi and Antti
Päivi Tahkokallio and Antti Kokkonen welcomed me over for a fabulous dinner at their stylish cottage in Partakko.

In the evening the AM band seemed to be full of stations from the Middle East, so it was a perfect timing to take a break from DXing and visit the stylish vacation home of Antti Kokkonen and Päivi Tahkokallio in the nearby village of Partakko. Antti is a colleague, he used to work as journalist at Yle, but nowadays he is the editor-in-chief of a regional newspaper, Lapin Kansa. We enjoyed sauna and a dip in the frozen Lake Inari. Antti smoked whitefish which he had caught from near the cabin in the fall. Topped off with smoked reindeer, this feast was truly made of local delicacies.

Both Antti and Päivi visited Aihkiniemi earlier in the afternoon. Antti later sent two journalists from his newspaper to cover the phenomenon of AM DXing in Aihkiniemi. They interviewed Jari Sinisalo, who arrived in Aihkiniemi right after me. Without subscribing, you can at least enjoy the drone view on the Lapin Kansa website.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

During the night and in the morning reception was erratic and mostly lousy from all directions. North American stations peaked briefly at 0100 UTC, then all but vanished before reappearing around 0500 UTC. Stations faded out around 0700 UTC, and only the strongest ones from the Pacific Northwest were detected at times during the day.

Frying Whitefish
Thanks to Antti, my best dinner was fillets of locally caught whitefish.

I began recording stations from the Eastern Hemisphere just before 1400 UTC. It is quite late, considering this is still fairly close to mid-winter. Surprisingly, Newstalk ZB was heard on and off during all afternoon, showing up as late as 1730 UTC, which was close to dawn in New Zealand. Some common Aussie stations were strong, such as ABC Radio National from Western Australia (1269 AM) at 1900 UTC, but at least initially I didn't find anything personally new.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Very few North American stations were audible overnight, but that was well compensated by the strong showing of stations from Brazil and Argentina. Listening live I happened to pick up La Primera from Neuquen (550 AM), thanks to our 270-degree-wire, which works very well for Argentina in the lower end of the dial. South American stations faded out just before 0700 UTC, and then the AM band was free for North American stations. Signal levels were modest, but at least stations didn't vanish right after dawn like on most previous days – they nosedived a bit later, just before 0900 UTC. Tonga and New Zealand emerged much earlier than before, at 1000 UTC, but this outburst turned out to be short, and after 1100 UTC there was hardly anything audible from either east or west.

I had to wait until 1400 UTC to get a wider selection of signals from the east. The usual suspects from the Southern Pacific were noted as well (Gold FM on 990 AM and Newstalk ZB on 1035 AM). Interestingly, Magic on 1107 AM was heard for the first time already at 1000 UTC and the last Kiwi around 1500 UTC, but still the number of stations was extremely limited.

A dead old pine tree
The surrounding area is not a nature reserve, but fortunately massive old – and even dead – pine trees are still left standing.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

During the night Brazilian stations emerged after 2200 UTC, and Argentinian stations followed after local nightfall. These stations peaked nicely around 0600 UTC, but afterwards only some weak signals from North America were heard. For many hours during the day, the AM band was completely devoid of stations, possibly apart from NRK Svalbard on 1485 AM and the UK on 693 AM.

Asian stations were remarkably slow to rise so that I ended up recording them only after 1530 UTC when it was already pitch dark here. Especially Chinese stations remained on the dial through the evening, but I found no new ones.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

During the night a handful of Brazilian stations emerged after darkness fell, starting from the northeastern corner of the country. North American stations took longer to appear, but the Great Lakes area was dominating the dial after midnight UTC. Reception gradually improved at daybreak, but the eastern half the U.S. vanished fast in daylight. What remained were the typical stations from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California.

Laptops and other equipment
Between the laptops is my antenna switcher. A Perseus receiver can be partly seen to the right of it, behind the second laptop. Perseus is the black box with a green led. The mess of wires above is where the coax cables come to the cabin.

The sun and consequently the magnetic field were calm for a change, manifested on the AM dial by the early arrival of East Asian stations. I noticed the first NHK stations soon after 0900 UTC, and V7AB (1098 AM) was heard for hours. Plenty of Chinese stations were heard for hours as well, and loads of Asian stations throughout the evening. Despite the generally good feeling on the dial, I didn't instantly make any personally new catches.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Still no daytimers during the early hours of the night, but before I went to sleep, I was happy to note the strong showing of Harbour Light (1400 AM) and some other Caribbean stations. For a change I didn't leave two antennas recording North America, but chose one (at 291 degrees) pointing to the Caribbean. Time will tell if there is anything. In any case, the morning hours offered a very nice opening to the U.S. East Coast, especially to New England. Personally new catches included stations like WXME 780 AM, WURD 900 AM, and WLIS 1420 AM. WRNY Rome NY (1350 AM) posted about my reception on its Facebook page, and WHZP Veazie ME (1400 AM) wrote a nice piece on its website. The aurora photos seem to make an impression whenever I send them along with my reception report.

Coastal stations remained on the dial until 1000 UTC, and finally I also nailed the most coveted U.S. station of the season, the Hudson County NJ TIS station WQFG689 on 1710 AM, with remarkable reception quality. The last hour of the opening was most interesting, and that's when I even identified a couple of Nicaraguan AM stations, Nueva Radio Ya on 600 AM and Radio La Sandino on 740 AM, the latter of which probably hasn't been heard in Finland before.

Beard moss on a tree
Beard moss requires clean air to grow like this. The air in this part of Lapland is the cleanest in the European Union.

Japanese and some common Pacific stations appeared briefly around 1000-1100 UTC, followed by a lull of several hours, when nothing much was heard from anywhere. The common Pacific Northwest was there, and from before 1500 UTC also Asian stations, but opening first to Iran and the Middle East, which wasn't very thrilling. In the evening I happened to catch live RRI Nabire on 729 AM, a long-sought target from Indonesia.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Stations from the U.S. East Coast were relatively strong in the wee hours of the night, but already before daybreak stations from the Midwest were at least equally prominent. I heard some stations from the southern states, but there were no sensational openings to any particular region. Despite a brief weakening after sunrise, North American signals remained quite strong until about 1200 UTC, by that time focusing in the Pacific Northwest. Personal new ones included KLCL 1470 AM, KCTE 1510 AM, and WISP 1570 AM.

AIH133 written on snow
AIH133, signing off at 13 local time on February 13.

On the Eastern front the first stations appeared before 1000 UTC, but only at around 1100 UTC it was worth recording the AM band. Luckily the most common New Zealand stations were quite strong, and it remains to be seen if there are any new ones to be found. An interesting detail is that at 1850 UTC I noticed RNE1 stations with a local break, although just a couple of months ago this local break was only on RNE5. On Friday night I had the last sauna and cleaned the new cabin for Jari.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Saturday morning was markedly poorer than Friday, but I still identified a couple of personal new ones, KMRY Cedar Rapids IA (1450 AM) and WWBG Greensboro NC (1470 AM). I cleaned the cabin, packed my belongings, and in the afternoon at 13.20 local time (1120 UTC), I was on my way driving south.

This Saturday happened to be World Radio Day, and I was asked to join live by phone on DYHB Bacolod (747 AM) in the Philippines, explaining what this radio hobby is all about. I was put on the air as soon as I left Aihkiniemi, and thanks to handsfree, racked up miles at the same time.

Sunlight illuminating a roadside forest
A slice of light

Driving south was like emerging from a barrel or a cave. Suddenly there's this whole world around me again, instead of me just listening to the airwaves day after day. Time to reflect on the past two weeks, reminisce about DXing, and muse about life in general – as there once again seems to be more to life than just DXing. As gloomy as the pandemic situation looks like, this escape proved to be a really welcome change, breaking up the monotony of identical days and weeks in the home office.

Probably for the first time ever, I didn't spot a single reindeer along the way. The weather was crisp and sunny, and apart from a couple of photo opportunities close to the Saariselkä ski resort, I drove straight down to Rovaniemi. That's where I got a hamburger at Hesburger, drove my car on the train, and met Hannu Tikkanen, who had been DXing in Lemmenjoki for the previous week. Rovaniemi offered a rare opportunity to socialize in a relatively COVID-free environment, at least compared to the capital region where we were headed. The train departed well behind its schedule, but on a return trip it doesn't matter. And unwinding over a couple of beers at the restaurant of the Rovaniemi railway station, who cares.

So, how well do working and DXing mix? If propagation conditions are at least mediocre, it soon becomes tough to handle both well, especially as antenna maintenance takes its toll. Still, I have no regrets about embarking on this remote work stint. Thanks to a few neat catches, AIH133 was well worth the trip.

Mika Mäkeläinen

Published on February 25, 2021 (slightly updated later)

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AIH133 DXpedition Log

AIH133 DXpedition Log by date and time (PDF)

Mika's other

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  AIH139 (log)
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