December 2020 Pickle Barrel Review

The official newsletter of the Weston Mountain Digital Radio Association


Greetings and welcome one and all to the Pickle Barrel Review! This is our regular monthly newsletter publication filled with the latest happenings not only of the W7NEO system, and the NE-OREGON room, but System Fusion and other Ham Radio related goings on as well. That said, we invite others to contribute with articles, or if your club or organization is having an event such as a tailgate, swap meet, VE testing, or whatever you can list it here as well (Sorry your cousins bachelor party doesn’t count). The only thing we ask is that your contribution be nonpolitical (unless it’s a government action that directly affects Ham Radio), respectful of others (no personal attacks), and relatively family friendly.  So, all that said, feel free to reach in the barrel, grab yourself a pickle, pull up a chair and have a sit while we discuss the latest happenings in System Fusion, and Ham Radio in general.

N7ZHG – SK                                                            

On the morning of December 16, 2020 at approximately 9:30am our dear friend Gary Cooper (N7ZHG) peacefully passed from this world to the next.

Gary was a good friend to many of us both in the Amateur Radio community and the county and state emergency communications responders. He was a driving force in establishing the potential of Amateur (“Ham”) Radio as a viable resource in emergency communication for Eastern Oregon. Gary continually raised the bar for quality of service, and service to the community in general when it came to providing emergency communication resources. He always expected the same level of commitment of others that he placed upon himself. More than once I recall conversations with him that began; ”So what are you doing this Saturday besides helping me install cable at the EOC?”

Gary always had a deep sense of family, and the importance of having a close relationship with family, always placing family before all else. This was evident in the living room walls of his apartment having been covered primarily with pictures of his family.

Gary took great pride in his 36 years working for the Union Pacific Railroad. He began his career with the railroad as part of a team of workers whose job it was to follow the rails looking for damaged power poles and repairing them. He ended his career as a Communications Systems Specialist and was a gifted technician.

Gary also was very into Radio Controlled Helicopters, and had quite a few that he had built and flew on a regular basis.

There is so much more I could say about Gary, but since first having let folks know of Gary’s passing it seemed as though everyone had a story to tell of how Gary had helped them with one thing or another.

I sincerely hope that Gary knew just how valuable his contributions to the community were. Given how long Gary’s battle with cancer was we can all find comfort in knowing he is no longer in pain and that the gift of himself which he so unselfishly shared in the many lives he touched will forever endear within us all.

Farewell old friend, you will be sorely missed by all those who knew you…

Repeater Updates

Given that winter is nearly in full array there isn’t much to report this month as far as the repeaters go. But we did manage to get a little something done.

You’ll recall that the Roosevelt machine (145.190) had some water accumulation in the antenna causing the SWR to be excessive (5.0:1). Even though we were able to get the SWR down to something more reasonable (2.3:1) we still put a replacement antenna on order from Sinclair (Model SC246). We were also able to obtain permission from the site owner to move our antenna up from the current 35ft level to a 90ft position. However, when we attempted to do so we found the current coax runs to be damaged. So, we have ordered a run of 7/8” Heliax and will be installing that instead. Hopefully, this should provide a significant improvement in coverage for the Roosevelt (145.190) repeater.

Yeasu has just released a firmware update for the DR2X repeater. It mainly addresses the problem with the repeater sticking in analog while in the AMS (Automatic Mode Switch) configuration. Fortunately, although all of the W7NEO machines are DR2X’s, with the exception of the two DR1X machines running strictly in analog (Cabbage Hill – 146.880 & Weston Mt – 441.700) all of the DR2X’s are currently running in “Fixed Digital.” So, there is no immediate need to install the upgrade, and it can wait until spring.

Lynn Wilson, K7LW


I have acquired some MESH equipment and once spring returns in earnest my plan is to install some of the equipment at the Weston Mt repeater site and link it back down to my home. Once installed I will be able to play with it and learn as much as I can about MESH networks.

Lynn Wilson, K7LW


There is a new digital voice repeater installed at the W7DP club house in College Place, WA and it is open to all licensed armature radio operators. The frequency of the repeater (N7DMR) is 445.300Mhz Offset -5Mhz.  

This repeater is a dual mode digital repeater supporting D-Star and DMR modes. The D-Star repeater is connected to the REF029A reflector with Washington Digital Radio Enthusiasts group in Spokane.  The DMR repeater features Brandmeister talkgroups with Reddit (98003 – Time Slot 1) and PNW Regional (31771 – Time Slot 2) as the static talkgroup. The repeater should have good coverage in the Walla Walla Valley reaching north to Dixie, south to Milton-Freewater and west to Touchet.

Please contact if you have questions about the repeater.

Kun Lin, N7DMR


VARA: an exciting new digital mode

Oversimplified tutorials – part 1: VARA FM getting started

VARA is a rising star in amateur radio digital communication. It works on both SSB on HF and FM on V/UHF with a slightly modified application. Let’s focused at VARA FM for this article.

VARA FM is most frequently used alongside Winlink to send or receive emails. The speed of VARA FM could range from 1098 Baud to 12,901 Baud and even reach 25,210 Baud if your radio provides discriminator audio (sometimes labeled as 9600baud mode). This is a truly amazing speed compare to AX.25.  VARA FM also incorporated Error Correction and tests have shown it could continue to function all the way to 0db signal-to-noise-ratio (Tom Whiteside 2020). The capability of VARA FM bring speeds up and down based on condition allows it to crush AX.25 on speed. AX.25 has a constant speed of 1200, 4800 or 9600 baud. The speed must be decided before establishing the conditions. 

Let’s take a look under the hood of VARA FM.  VARA use orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) where it will encode digital signals in multiple subcarriers.  Each subcarrier is modulated separately and runs at a lower symbol rate. After aggregating all subcarriers, it provides a similar or better speed compare to conventional signal carrier modulation. Author of the VARA mode, Jose Alberto Nieto Ros, implies that each subcarrier could be considered independent emission. VARA mode is compliant with FCC Baud rate limits because each subcarrier is within the baud rate limits.   (Alberto 2017) This is how VARA whether it is running on FM or HF could legally provides better speeds.

Now let’s talk about how to run VARA FM. To run VARA FM with your Winlink, you will need to install VARA applications first. Download the VARA applications from  VARA HF and VARA FM are two separate applications. The VARA application is considered a freemium software. The basic level is free to use. You will need to pay to use the premium feature. With free basic level, you will get speed comparable to packet network of 1200 baud on VHF and 300 baud on HF. The paid version will unleash the highest speed possible based on conditions. After you have the application installed, it needs to have an interface with your radio. All VARA needs is a way to send and receive audios from radio and PTT control. There are couple ways to achieve it. 

  1. “Give me something that works” mode:  Using SignaLink, RIGblaster or a build-in soundcard if available (e.g. Yaesu 991a or ICOM 7100). These devices function as a sound card and PTT control device on your computer. Pick appropriate sound card and PTT control port in VARA and Winlink application and there you go. These devices cost around $130 + cable costs.
  2. “Junior Ranger” mode: Master Communication provides a device “Digital Radio Adapter DRA-30”. You could buy them unassembled for $30 or fully assembled for $60. They function similar to SignalLink by create an audio device and PTT control on your computer. Be ready to get your hands wet as you need to solder and make your own cables.
  3. “Indiana Jones” Mode: You could very run audio cables from radio into your computer. VOX circuit could work. But if you could figure out a PTT control mechanism, it works more reliable.

Now you are ready to work VARA FM with Winlink. Type in the callsign of a gateway, turn to the frequency on your radio and hit start.  In next installment oversimplified tutorials, I will go into details on operating tips of VARA FM. Stay tuned and happy radio surfing.


Alberto, Jose. 2017. “Introducing the all new VARA High Speed HF Modem.” Accessed 12 8, 2020.

Tom Whiteside, N5TW. 2020. “A comparison of Winlink® digital mode performance based on simulation results using the Teensy IONOS Simulator1 – Take Two.” July 5. Accessed 12 8, 2020.

Kun Lin, N7DMR

Emergency Communications

This piece came from a posting to the Salem Mesh Network Groups I/O page and is reprinted here with permission from the author. I thought the author made some very good points in support of the value, and further possibilities of MESH net during a natural or manmade disaster. Here he gives us an excellent example by using the recent events in Nashville TN as a possible scenario. – Lynn

What if Nashville would have had a MESH Net available when the lights went out?

The below link is for a USA Today article; there have been several published articles related to this event and how a single point of failure can cause a significant, wide area outage. 

Nashville bombing at AT&T building exposed area communications network (

This could be a useful real-world case study for alternative systems like our AREDN mesh network. 

One service that I’ve started thinking about that I think we could run over our network would be a text messaging provider, for person-to-person and bulletins. I’m imagining Part 15 hotspots accessible by the public in multiple locations (schools, shelters, libraries, community centers, etc) that are used by an end-user device to access a web interface that allows them to input their phone number as a (insecure) login. They can post messages to any other phone number (ideally the web interface would show when that login was last active), read any messages sent to their number, and post/read messages to predefined bulletins (that would be represented with # like: #911, #news, #inSearchOf, #resources). Since logins aren’t secure, messages would probably be marked “read” but remain archived for some period of time and autodelete (so a user can’t delete someone else’s messages), and bulletins would probably need to be actively moderated. 

I’ll work on a proof of concept. Ideally, I think this would have some sort of synchronized, distributed database so that it could continue to be useful locally even if mesh links are intermittent or lost. Similarly, the server software should be able to run multiple instances at multiple sites. I think I can work out the basic interface for a POC, but I’d need help on the distributed database piece.

Stay tuned… in the meantime, what other services can we develop that would be easily used by the general population or public services that have a very low barrier to adoption (assuming we may not get much opportunity to practice or train end users before an event)?

The Nashville event is another reminder that commercial systems will always have vulnerabilities, even as reliability improves. One of the ham community’s greatest strengths is flexibility, but we are stronger when we prepare and practice ahead of time.

I think our (Salem) mesh network is at the pivot point where we start working on services as well as building infrastructure. For me, this event was motivation to think about public facing services we could provide. 

Jason Conolly, N7IME

Virtual VE Testing

When I was in the military we had a saying, when the going gets tough; “Adapt and overcome.” With COVID-19 in the news on a seemingly non-stop basis we’ve all had to make adjustments in our daily lives in order to maintain social distancing and limit our personal interactions with others. In a word, in order to stay safe and healthy we adjust our norm adapting to a new norm, and thereby overcome adversity. In Ham Radio the task of bringing new folks into the hobby has been no less diminished by the plague. With everyone limited in our travels and remaining in self quarantine Ham Radio has provided a vital social link to the outside world, growing in popularity as a result. The Volunteer Examiners recognize this and have adapted to the need for social distancing, owning up to the challenge without compromising the task of providing license exams. The end result being to bring new blood into our beloved hobby.

Rob Skiba (W2RY) of Pasco Washington is a Volunteer Exam Coordinator having been certified through the W5YI Volunteer Examination program. Rob has done an excellent job of assembling a team of Volunteer Examiners (VE’s) and is sponsored through the Spout Springs Repeater Association (SSRA), a long-established organization that continually sets the bar for dedication to the local community.

Recently I was talking with my long-time friend Stephen Hutchings (WM7X) who is the current President of the SSRA, and the subject of VE testing came up. Stephen mentioned that the SSRA had been sponsoring VE testing, and they were always in need of VE’s to help administer exams. When I mentioned I had been certified with both the W5YI and the ARRL VE programs at one time it didn’t take long before I was shamed into joining the SSRA VE team (for anyone that knows Stephen this should come as no surprise).

Before I knew it I was sitting in on a Zoom call with several other VE’s observing a test session. Rob did an excellent job of keeping things well organized, and professional, while ensuring the examinee was completely at ease. Since the exam was being administered online examinees were from all over the US including one from my hometown of Chico California! In that case I couldn’t help but to share with the examinee that back in the 70’s I had taken my first license exam at the local High School with a very good friend of mine who later would become mayor of Chico. I was also able to suggest a local Ham Radio Club.

The examination process itself is a well-choreographed series of steps intended to dispel any possibility of cheating, ensure that all the proper paperwork is completed in a timely manner, and above all that the examinee is relaxed and ready to take the exam. From my own personal observations, I can assure you that Rob’s team does an exceptional job of achieving all of this.

If you or someone you know is looking to get into the hobby for the first time, or upgrade their existing license, here is the link to sign up for a test session:

The cost per exam session is $14 and it is all online. for more information visit the SSRA web site:

So, if you already hold an Extra class license consider getting in touch with Rob and joining his team of VE’s. You will be playing a vital role in contributing to the furthering of this great hobby of ours.

Lynn, K7LW


Yeasu has just come out with firmware upgrades for the FTM-400XDR, and the FTM-300DR. It looks as though the update primarily addresses some Bluetooth issues with the two radios. Make sure when you install the update that the FTM-400 that you are updating is a model “XDR.” Apparently, there is a difference in this case when it comes to the firmware.

Local Events

Thanks to COVID 19 most all of the normal yearly events such as Ham Fests, Swap Meets, etc. are pretty much all on hold until further notice. Hopefully once this plague has tired of ravaging the countryside we can get back to normal and go back to holding our cherished nerd conventions once again. But should you have any knowledge of events such as VE testing, or even something virtual locally going on let us know and we’ll get it in the Review for others.

And last but not least as the saying goes, we’ve started a new event in the NE-OREGON room originally requested by the Willamette Valley group. Every Friday evening at 7:00pm local there will be a technical forum to discuss Fusion, MESH, or any other topic of a technical nature related to Ham Radio. After obtaining approval from the WMDRA for a single night to see how it was going to work out, the response from our users was positive enough to make it a regular event. So be sure to tune in to the NE-OREGON room on Friday evenings at 7:00pm to learn or perhaps even contribute.