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Discovering Iranian and African AM stations - AIH17 DXpedition to Aihkiniemi - September 15-23, 2012, by Mika Mäkeläinen

This week under the northern lights turned out to be poor for DXing, but we did open one new frontier. We set up a Beverage antenna pointing at 160 degrees, which has never before been tried in Lapland. The new antenna resulted in a motherload of stations from Iran, many of which had never been heard in Scandinavia. Aside from DXing, we improved our antennas and enjoyed hiking in the tundra.

I and Jim Solatie left from rainy Helsinki by train on Friday evening to arrive in equally rainy Lapland early Saturday morning. We didn't hit any reindeer on the way, so we had to shop for meat and other groceries the traditional way... Excluding stops in Sodankylä, Ivalo and Inari totaling one and a half hours, our net driving time from Rovaniemi to Aihkiniemi (400 km) was four hours and 40 minutes — good to know so we wouldn't miss the train a week later when we returned.

Yellow birch on Palovaara
A view from Palovaara ("Fire Mountain") southwest towards Jääjärvet ("Ice Lakes"). Sure looks fiery this time of the year!

We consumed the last civilized meal — prompting Jim to interrupt his fasting — at Scanburger in Inari, which is probably the northernmost burger franchise in the world. Then we were on our own, which meant a busy time for our microwave oven in Aihkiniemi.

Just once we ventured into the culinary sphere favored by some of our DXing colleagues. We bought tender Brazilian filet mignon, which lasted for three days. No protein deprivation in our diet.

To consume all those calories we worked a lot with the antennas. We set up two new 1-kilometer (0.7-mile) long antennas, pointing at 110 and 160 degrees. The 110° wire was supposed to bring us stations from Western Australia, Thailand and South Asia, and had been successfully tried on a temporary basis a year earlier. Now it was to become permanent.

Curvy road, fall colors
A few more kilometers to Aihkiniemi

The timing of the DXpedition was designed to maximize our chances of getting new Australian AM stations. The result was not a total disaster, as we did catch a couple of rare stations from Down Under, but in any case there were no major openings to Australia. Conditions were best on September 20, a day after we enjoyed the best northern lights (aurora borealis) of the week. Aside from 1152 kHz nothing was heard from Western Australia, so instead of 110°, Aussie stations were better heard on the regular 80° and 60° wires.

Map of antenna directions in Aihkiniemi

The 160° antenna was however a totally novel experiment. We figured that it should be good for a few small island nations in the Indian Ocean, which had eluded our ears for decades. There was just one problem with the direction. 160° was not only ideal for Reunion but also for Iran. So you can guess which one we ended up listening to.

DXing the Islamic Republic

Ivalo Riverfront
Fall colors on the Ivalo River

Iranian stations have often been treated as notorious indicators of poor propagation: if nothing else is audible, at least there are Iranians. Very few AM DXers in Europe have seriously tried to monitor and log Iranian AM stations. Yet the country is fairly large and it has an impressive amount of regional stations which can be heard with their own programming. They tend to identify promptly at the hour (30 minutes past the hour UTC), but many of them are far from easy catches. So, Iranian stations deserve to be taken more seriously. And so we did.

Besides, during the solar maximum it is essential to be able to make a virtue of necessity, and focus not just on your favorite target but try to make sense of whatever happens to remain on the dial.

dinner
A toast to all the Iranian stations!

Sunday, October 16th was our first opportunity to take advantage of the 160-degree wire. At 1530 UTC (19:00 in Iran) conditions were not yet quite ripe for stations so far West, but 1630 UTC (20:00 in Iran), which is often the last top-of-the-hour to identify regional Iranian stations, we had an IRIB galore of an unprecedented scale.

Each evening at the same time, at 1630 UTC, we identified dozens of Iranian stations, many with regional programming, and many which we didn't even know to exist, some unlisted in the World Radio TV Handbook. To give you an idea of some exotic catches on this front, have you ever even heard about Radio Khorasan-e Jonubi from Birjand on 621 kHz or Radio Khorasan-e Shomali from Bojnourd on 873 kHz?

Iranians can be heard also in the early morning hours, but usually not quite as well. Also for Iran, just like any other direction, having the right Beverage antenna gives quite a boost to the signals.

cabin interior
We decorated the cabin with an oversize souvenir from our trip to Bogotá, Colombia, a year earlier.

In addition to the Islamic Republic, most Arab countries happened to be located in the direction of our new antenna. We did get a few Africans as well, including Radio Veritas from South Africa on 576 kHz although conditions were never really auroral, opening the path straight south.

During AIH17 DXing was pretty much limited to 1500-1800 UTC in the evening and to the early morning hours until 0400 UTC in the morning. In the afternoons conditions favored a southern route, without much of Japan or northern China. Overall conditions during the morning peak were poor, but we managed to get a few new stations from both North and South America.

More Antennas Than Ever Before

After our improvements, Aihkiniemi now boast perhaps the most extensive antenna array ever available to DXers in Scandinavia. There are a total of 13 Beverage antennas, each roughly 1 kilometer in length, to choose from.

Grounding the 160-degree antenna
Jim hammering a grounding rod at the end of the new 160-degree antenna.

During daytime we had plenty of time to sleep, repair the antennas or just go hiking. On the day before our departure we hiked to Näätämö River almost on the Norwegian border. The weather was perfect (sunny and close to +10 degrees Celsius at best), the fall colors were still visible, but we didn't see anyone else (reindeer don't count) on the 15-kilometer hike to and back from a suspension bridge crossing the river. Luxurious and very private outdoor excitement.

Around our cabin we were this time not interfered by bears, but instead entertained by several birds on their way south. Storks, swans and geese all used our small lake as a resting stop. There were plenty of lingonberries and even blueberries all around, a fringe benefit when working in the forest.

cabin in September 2012
The cabin has a new wooden siding.

The Aihkiniemi cabin had been spruced up by previous DXpeditionists turned carpenters and now has a wooden siding. Next year the roofing will be remodeled, and then our austere listening base will begin to resemble a regular cottage.

The first few hours in the cabin are always a bit chaotic, as we try to assemble our gear before the evening opening to Asia. This time setting up our equipment took longer than ever before, mostly because we again had some new stuff. For the first time we attempted to use only linear power sources to minimize interference. Four Perseus receivers were connected to a power source made by Jarmo Salmi, producing interference-free 5V outlets.

Already last winter we had equipped the cabin with four linear power sources for laptop computers, and now I had bought a bunch of power supplies for the external hard drives as well. However, we didn't manage to get rid of all sources of electrical interference. The quest for perfection continues.

Fall colors on the ground
Fall colors on the tundra, shot during our hiking trip to Näätämö River.

Jaguar Eats Perseus

As far as software goes, AIH17 was the first DXpedition when I for the most part abandoned Perseus software to control the Perseus hardware, opting instead to use a new software called Jaguar, which is still being developed, and is only available as a teamware among the developers. Jaguar has sharp teeth and it is a very comprehensive tool for serious AM DXing. Jaguar enables for instance reliable post-production calibration, which prompted me to log stations with as precise frequency measurements as possible. For automated recordings we used Mestor, which is a simple yet very efficient and reliable no-hassle recording software.

The following chart lists solar indices affecting propagation conditions during the DXpedition. As usual, thanks to Jan Alvestad for compiling the data.

Date Mea-
sured
solar
flux
Sunspot
number
Planetary
A index
K indices
(3-hour
intervals)
Min_max
Solar wind
speed range
(km/s)
#
of
flares
ST
AR SDO
NO
AA
ST
AR
ap avg
WDC Daily
ap range
Planetary
(WDC)
Boulder C M X
2K 1K
14.9.2012 100.5 165 104 44 5.5 6 3-15 11111213 11112222 374-449
15.9.2012 97.5 98 66 53 6.1 6 3-9 22211112 22222212 362-438
16.9.2012 97.3 82 54 77 8.5 8 3-18 23121132 22122232 353-422
17.9.2012 101.5 107 64 51 5.6 6 3-12 32111112 22112222 358-433 2
18.9.2012 104.3 107 74 61 10.4 10 4-18 33322311 23133222 349-412 1
19.9.2012 109.8 128 91 62 15.1 15 4-39 23122345 13122444 324-397 2
20.9.2012 117.4 138 106 68 12.8 13 7-22 33433222 32322322 379-585 1
21.9.2012 116.9 149 103 74 7.3 7 5-12 22222321 11122311 410-530
22.9.2012 124.5 185 96 46 6.8 7 3-12 32221112 11221111 349-471
23.9.2012 133.6 198 109 57 0.5 0 0-2 00000000 10001210 332-371 1
24.9.2012 136.6 244 162 90 2.3 2 0-4 00000111 00001211 300-355 3

Jim at Palovaara
Passing over the top of Palovaara on the way to Näätämö River. The mountains in the horizon are in Norway.

Here's a summary of our DXing and other activities day by day:

Saturday, September 15, 2012

When we were still connecting our wires, we got an alert from Bjarne Mjelde in Kongsfjord about early conditions to Asia. He heard stations from Hokkaido already after 1300 UTC. Here only semi-local stations from the Kola Peninsula were audible, but we did get our first Japanese signals before 1400 UTC. Around 1630 UTC some X-band Aussies were heard (including a 2UE relay of 954 kHz on 1620 kHz), and an hour later a couple of stations from South Australia showed up on the regular AM band. In the evening, Brazilian stations came fairly strong already before 2100 UTC, but signal levels subsided later in the night.

Näätämö River Valley
Looking down into the Näätämö River Valley
Sunday, September 16, 2012

Some Brazilians were heard around 0300 UTC, including Rádio Restauracão, Caruaru PE on 1590 kHz, on an otherwise lousy morning. We spent the daylight hours in the forest putting up two new 1-kilometer-long beverage antennas pointing at 110 and 160 degrees. When we tried to measure correct directions with the compass, the readings varied wildly. Eventually we found out the reason: I had a repetitive strain injury in my right hand, and I was wearing a kind of a supportive strapping, which restricts movement — and which turned out to have metal inside. Fortunately we figured it out early enough, otherwise antennas would have been 20 degrees off target. We began work (Jim doing all the heavy lifting) in beautiful sunny weather, but ended up soaking wet. The weather sure changes fast here.

Riverfront
In Lapland small plants on the ground retain beautiful colors much longer than birch trees.

Asian stations began to rise around 1500 UTC. Conditions favored Thailand and South Asia, without Aussie sightings. Iranians however were very strong, and thanks to the new antenna, we heard what seemed like nearly all existing Iranian stations at 1630 UTC. Nothing interesting in the evening, even the Brazilians were very weak.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Overnight conditions to the Western hemisphere sporadically covered everything from Atlantic Canada to Argentina, but no rarities were immediately identified. U.S. stations were best after 0300 UTC, and Latin Americans a bit later, but even they vanished around 0400 UTC. Time to get some sleep.

M on bridge
The narrow cable bridge is a bit wobbly, but the only way to cross the Näätämö River for miles around.
We continued antenna work, installing grounding for both of the new wires. The 160-degree wire runs in fabulous terrain and has wonderful views to the south from the end of the antenna. Back at the cabin we rewarded ourselves by preparing some nice Brazilian filet mignon with 2011 Chilean Tocornal Cabernet Sauvignon.

Evening conditions began around 1500 UTC, but were worse than on the preceding days. Some Central Asian stations were heard, then a bit of South Asia and Middle East, and that's pretty much it. Iranians were again pretty good at 1630 UTC. However, since we didn't have auroral conditions, we didn't make any interesting catches from Africa either. In the evening, this being the first weeknight, it was time to check Spanish local breaks. SER breaks were noted at 2058.00 and 2154.50 UTC, and COPE at 2058.55 and 2154.55 UTC. No rarities, but for instance COPE Alta Extremadura was noted on 900 kHz.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Lapin kulta
Lapin Kulta ("The Gold of Lapland") is an indigenous species that produces bright red leaves and canisters which contain a fairly drinkable alcoholic beverage. Too bad that this late into the season all the liquid that we encountered during the hike had somehow evaporated.

Brazilian stations emerged weak on Monday evening around 2100 UTC, and continued very poor through the night. U.S. stations first surfaced briefly before 2330 UTC, only to disappear right away, and gradually reappearing after 0130 until everything vanished before 0400 UTC.

In the morning our closest neighbor was having a bit of an emergency situation, and she came over to ask for our help. In the confusion she drove off our driveway, and Jim's 4WD Honda served as a good tow truck. All well in the end.

car in ditch
A neighbor got stuck on our driveway.
It was a rainy day, so we took a break from outdoor labor. Evening conditions to Asia began before 1500 UTC, but not much from East Asia or even India. The most interesting time was again at 1630 UTC, which is the best time to identify Iranian stations. ABC's 1152 kHz transmitter in Western Australia was finally heard late in the evening our time, along with some Chinese and other Far East station, but no other Aussies.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Indian stations were heard quite well at sign-on time (around 0023 UTC). Practically nothing was heard from Latin America overnight, but U.S. stations emerged at midnight UTC and vanished around 0400 UTC. Reception peaked around 0115 UTC, but no new ones were identified. In the daytime Jim went hiking to Saariselkä, while I checked and fixed all our six antennas pointing to the Western Hemisphere. A fallen tree had taken our 250-degree wire to the ground, but fortunately the wire was intact.

Northern lights with shooting star
This particular shot of the northern lights was not properly in focus, so a larger view would reveal nothing more, but I picked this one here because of a rare incident: a shooting star in the same frame!

Afternoon conditions to Asia began around 1400 UTC with some Chinese stations on the dial. Later on conditions to Asia turned out to be miserable, once again. Without the new 160-degree wire we would have had nothing interesting to listen to. Looks like the log will be full of IRIB stations. In the evening impressive northern lights lit up the sky, and I spent a couple of hours photographing them. I only wish I had brought my tripod, but persistent trial and error eventually produced some nice shots of the Arctic sky.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Porttipahta reservoir
Porttipahta Reservoir was totally calm. Notice the fyke in the foreground - this is good whitefish territory.

Overnight conditions were poor, except for a few North American stations at daybreak, including KPUR Amarillo TX on 1440 kHz. We slept much of the rainy day. In the evening conditions to Asia began exceptionally late, but we were fortunate to hear more than just a couple of Aussies, catching for instance 4CA on 846 kHz and 4RO on 990 kHz, both from Queensland. The joy was over soon, but in the evening the 160-degree wire offered some African AM stations, such as Radio Veritas from South Africa on 576 kHz. Having seven 1-kilometer-long Beverage antennas to the Eastern Hemisphere gives a nice selection in the evenings.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Overnight was rather poor to all directions, but I was happy to get FEBA programming on 1125 kHz, obviously via Sri Lanka. In the early morning hours Manica from Mozambique gave a nice signal on 1026 kHz, airing an interval signal and repeated local station identifications at 0250-0300 UTC, so this is the best time to try to catch and identify it. Practically no trans-Atlantic signals were heard during the night or morning.

shitty conditions
Shitty conditions, and this particular catch remained unidentified. Is this where chocolate comes from?

We spent most of the daylight hours checking and repairing our remaining antennas, for instance rebuilding part of a broken 10-degree antenna and fixing a coax feed line. Got a bit of sunshine and several rain showers. Now the Aihkiniemi antennas are all in prime condition.

Asian stations emerged around 1500 UTC, but conditions were poor. Once again catching Iranian local stations at 1630 UTC was our evening highlight, indicative of the quality of the conditions.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

During the night Brazilian and Argentinean signals began to intensify after 0130 UTC and continued somewhat past 0400 UTC, which should eventually give us a couple of new stations.

Swan lake
Many migratory birds use our lake as a resting place on their way south.

In the daytime we drove to Näätämö on the Norwegian border and went hiking to the Näätämö River, part of a large wilderness area. During the 4.5-hour hike we didn't see a single person on the trail. The weather was favorable, and this was indeed a very nice break from DXing and antenna work.

In the evening Asians began to invade the dial around 1500 UTC, but apart from some weak X-band signals, we didn't hear Aussies. Cambodia on 918 kHz was caught at closing time 1600 UTC. Once again we focused on Iranians, a new one for today being Esfafan regional programming on 1260 kHz (simulcasting with 837 AM which is a regular). A bunch of East Asian powerhouses continued late into the evening, so we kept a close watch at Japanese NHK stations opening the broadcast day. JOGK NHK1 Kumamoto via Minamata on 1341 kHz was a major surprise, although the signal was weak.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Lingonberries
Lingonberries are favored by DXers and bears, the two beasts at the top of the food chain.

Latin American stations were heard during most of the morning hours, but signal levels were not spectacular. As usual, stations vanished by 0400 UTC.

Due to a cancellation nobody would be DXing in the cottage for the upcoming two weeks, so we gathered our remaining hard drives and designed an ambitious automated recording schedule until we would be returning ourselves in two weeks for the AIH18 DXpedition. The arrangement allowed us to leave all our stuff around the cabin without the usual furious last-minute packing hassle, and without hauling the hardware back and forth.

Moose on roadside
This moose fortunately made a last-minute turn on the roadside and headed back to the forest near Sodankylä when we were returning south.

September is the most dangerous time of the year on the road when it comes to moose encounters. When we were driving down from Sodankylä on highway 4, we suddenly noticed a moose trying to get across. Uncharacteristically the moose turned around at the last minute. Usually they don't think twice about crossing a road, whether there is traffic or not. In any case Jim was alert, and we were far enough and drove slow enough to avoid a collision. We continued to Rovaniemi where we took the train south, arriving in rainy Helsinki on Monday morning.

By this time you should be aching to come over and try Aihkiniemi for yourself. The good news is that we can make it happen. Aihkiniemi is available for rent, and all the antennas are just waiting for you. There are many vacant weeks left during this winter. You can read more about renting Aihkiniemi for your DXpedition of a lifetime in this article.

Published on September 29, 2012

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