A Chat with the Goat Hiker, Steve WGØAT!

Steve Galchutt, WGØAT, is the “Goat Hiker” and daddy to radio pack-goats Rooster and Peanut!  Steve’s series of adventurous online videos featuring Rooster and Peanut on mountaintop radio activations has received worldwide accolades from the amateur radio community and beyond.  WG0AT RandPThe unique combination of rugged outdoorsmanship, amateur radio operational skills, novel homebrewed gear, quirky humor, and of course the goats, has made the call WGØAT universally recognized among hams.  We recently sat down with Steve for a cold beverage and a chat about his background, the goats, and his unique brand of ham radio ops.

HRS:  Howdy Steve, and thanks for talking with us today!  We’re really looking forward to hearing all about Rooster and Peanut.  Oh, and maybe a little about you, too, if we must.

WGØAT:  <Laughing> Yea, I hear you, Stu!  Rooster and Peanut are the real brains of this operation anyway.  But seriously, I’m happy to talk about my favorite activity in the world and to share a bit of it with your readers.  Just tell me when to start talking!

HRS: OK, now’s good!  Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into radio.

WGØAT: Grew up Southern California, always near somewhere I could get outdoors and hike, like the San Gabriel Mountains.  Right behind my backyard fence was this big wilderness, and as a kid I used to sneak through the fence and get out there with my buddy.

The way I got into ham radio was kind of interesting in that I started out listening to LORAN beacons, the navigational beacons, you know.  My brother and I built a crystal set when we were kids, and it was so cool to be able to use a coil, a hunk of crystal, with a little cat whisker you could move around on it, an earphone and a piece of wire for an antenna, and you could pull in radio signals with it!  Something invisible that you couldn’t see, but with intelligent information on it that you could hear – music or news or whatever – and I just thought that was awesome.  That really did it for me.  It really sparked my interest in radio waves, and later I played around with building a little (low power) broadcast radio transmitter for the (commercial) broadcast bands.  I pretended I was a DJ, I would play music around our neighborhood, and even printed out some information with when I would be on the air and distributed it to the neighbors.

HRS:  That is really cool.  So you were a little micro-DJ, spinning tunes for your friends and neighbors with a few milliwatts, huh?

WGØAT:  Yea, in fact, a friend of mine was also interested in electronics, and we went around on trash day scavenging for old junk radios or maybe a junk TV set, and if we saw a TV sitting in the trash that was a gold mine of parts.  And with my paper route money I built a Heath Kit receiver — an AR3 Heath Kit shortwave receiver, and I heard Sputnik on it in 1957 and I was just like, “Holy cow!”

HRS:  Wow!  That’s incredible!  That’s a real piece of radio history there!

WGØAT:  Yea, exactly.  It was just, “Beep beep….  beep beep,” and it would get really strong and then fade out.  It was about that time also that I had an hour between early Sunday school and church before my parents came around, and I would just go sit with my radio and listen to LORAN beacons and play around, and that’s how I learned about Morse Code.  I heard the beacons and then got a table of the code characters, I put that in my coat jacket, and then me and my buddy eventually would sit in Sunday school and tap our fingers on the table to one another, or sometimes wink in code during the lessons.  The teacher finally caught us and asked, “OK, what are you guys up to?”  So, we told her we were sending secret messages back and forth in Morse Code.  She said, “OK young men, I want you to stand up in front of the class and explain to everyone what you were just doing,” and she actually thought she was punishing us somehow.

HRS:  <Chuckling> So, you actually got to stand up there and brag to the whole class about your skills and what you had accomplished!  That’s classic!

WGØAT:   Yea, exactly!  But the next Sunday nearly the whole class was tapping and winking with one another, and the poor old teacher about had a conniption fit!

HRS:  So, the LORAN listening and the Heath Kit and the Sunday school secret messaging actually led you right into ham radio, huh?

WGØAT:  Yep, and there was an Elmer that lived a couple of blocks over from me, an old Navy sparky with tattoos of anchors and kind of a gruff old guy.  He had a big radio rack with mercury vapor rectifiers that glowed in the dark, a big Collins receiver, and I walked in and felt like I was in some big broadcast studio.  Anyway, he agreed to give us our Novice test, and to prepare us for it and everything.  He was tough on us on transmitting code, we had to be perfect, but he finally passed us, and in that day it took five or six weeks for the license to show up in the mail.  So, in the meantime while we were waiting my buddy and I built up bootleg receivers and transmitters at about 5 watts, and we sent code back and forth to each other across the neighborhood using call signs that we looked up from somewhere way up in northern California.  I was always worried we would get busted!  But after our tickets came in it was all legit.

HRS:  How long have you been doing the mountain-topping gig, operating from on high?

WGØAT:  I got involved in search and rescue about 25 years ago here in Colorado.  I originally wanted to get involved in a radio club when I moved to Colorado Springs.  I had my General Class license, so I went to a local club meeting.  But it was just a bunch of guys sitting around the coffee pot smoking cigarettes, and somehow I just didn’t fit in.  It was boring, and not what I expected.  A friend at work said one day, “Hey, you really ought to come down to Search & Rescue, there’s a couple of hams there, and we could really use some more communicators.”  I thought that would be cool, and they were holding a trainingSteveMT1 event at Cheyenne Canyon the next week.  The next thing I knew I was repelling off a 200 foot cliff with a harness and all these tools hanging off my belt, with lots of good people to teach me things.  It was like a brotherhood of people you learn to trust with your life, and they taught me to be comfortable and survive in the outdoors.  And so, I did that for ten years with lots of great missions and stories, but I later decided to spend my time more with family as my daughters grew up.

HRS:  That’s really interesting!  So, how did you translate that experience into the Summits On The Air (SOTA) and amateur QRP operations from mountaintops?

WGØAT:  Yea! Well, I was doing the QRP thing, and my hero in the ham radio world was West Hayward, W7ZOI. Wes had written some QST articles and one of them was a “mountaineer rig” that you could hold in the palm of your hand, and this was in 1976!  I sent off for the PC board and got all the parts and pieces and put it together.  And it didn’t work.  I had to send a couple of letters off to Wes and he wrote back, and eventually I got it to work.  So, I’d go off on a hike with this thing and a little battery, and I started making CW contacts with it!  And I just thought that was so cool!

I went through a number of different bigger rigs through the years, and about the time I was ready to retire from work my wife was getting into horseback riding.  I didn’t want to haul the bigger gear on my back so, somewhat in self-defense given the wife’s horses I thought, “Why not a goat?”  And really what led me to that was that I was into fly fishing, and the common places were just too crowded for me, so I started exploring higher altitude lakes.  I read a book about it where the author said that his hiking buddy to the high lakes was a goat that helped pack his fishing gear.  So I thought, “Goats, yea! Alright!”  But you can’t get just one goat, because, like people, they’ll get neurotic. They’re herd animals, so you have to get two goats, or more.  So I got Rooster and Peanut when they were kids from the Alamosa Valley area.  I started hiking with them about seven years ago, and they started out carrying little packs with lunch, and we worked up from there.  They’re capable of together carrying about 100 pounds of gear into the back country, safely and pretty effortlessly.  And they’re worth at least a laugh a day!R&P

HRS:  That sounds terrific!  I can see the advantage they offer, carrying food, gear, water, and almost anything else I suppose.  But, is there a downside or disadvantage to hiking and radio operating with the goats?

WGØAT:  They’re like a two year-old or a three year-old, you’re constantly having to watch your stuff.  When I first started out hiking with them I’d have a snack or a granola bar in my jacket pocket, and then I’d take off the jacket and stow it away.  Then Rooster would bury his head in my pack looking for that snack and pulling things out of the pack.  If he got something part way down and I’d pull it back out, it would be covered in slime, you know.  Goat goo.  So, you’ve got to keep your eye on them and your gear, too.  Otherwise, they’re fine.  They don’t bark, bite, or chase, and they’re kind of like extra nerve endings.  They’ll alert on something far away and let me know it, like another hiker or a dog or something.  And they have personalities that are very visible, and I’ve tried to personify that in the videos.

HRS:  Yes, tell us about the videos a little.  I know you had some professional experience in your career with video recording and editing of technical training materials, but how did you transition into the goat hiker videos?

WGØAT:  Well, when I was working for Hewlett-Packard a few years back I had a manager who wanted to get training videos on the web, and we hired a production crew that was very expensive to record engineers explaining how to use oscilloscopes and other measurement equipment.  It was my job to coordinate the whole thing, kind of a director-producer, and figure out how to get it on the web.  After a while of watching these guys try to put together the videos, I decided that I could do a better job myself and save a lot of money, too.

So I tried to convinced the boss to let me give it a try, and I began to educate myself about digital video recording, editing, and production.  The boss wasn’t convinced of the advantage, but I started doing my own thing just for fun.  When I retired I got everything I needed, and I didn’t even know what I was going to shoot.  But I had a little pocket digital camera and I stuck it on the end of my hiking stick, and I just started talking to the camera during my hikes and the goats were there…

Actually, I was up on Mount Herman on an incredibly windy day, my antenna blew over, and I didn’t make any contacts at all.  So I figured I’d make the most of it.  I decided to make a video of our hike down the mountain.  I got some shots of the goats, and I was talking to the camera, and I was talking to the goats.  I made a little four-minute video and put some captions in for the goats, and I put it on YouTube.  I popped the link up on QRPL, and I got allSteve-Rooster-Peanut1 this feedback with kudos and “Hey, that was fun to watch!”  I was going through the retirement transition and leaving that whole culture of kudos and feedback, and the video response really encouraged me to do more.  I was already operating off of mountains, just a natural thing to try and get to a high place to set up an antenna, so that kind of became my video subject.

HRS:  And that kind of leads us into the whole QRP operational concept, as contrasted with higher power operations.  I suppose you could easily haul big batteries and a more powerful transmitter up the mountains with the goats, but you mostly choose to keep with low power operations.  Can you explain a little about the appeal of QRP and why you prefer it?

WGØAT:  Low power just makes sense from the standpoint that you don’t need a lot of heavy equipment – batteries or radios or other stuff.  And the mountain is your tower, and a tall one, so even with a modest antenna such as just a wire strung up in a tree you’re equal to or better than the guy downhill with a big tower.  The other aspect of it is sort of like fly fishing and catching that big two-pound rainbow trout that just fights like crazy on the end of this line!  You caught him on a fly that you tied, with a pole that you’ve made, and the sense of accomplishment is just huge.  That, versus you screwed some big juicy worm on this old rusty old hook and used your fish finder…  QRP and home-brewing gear is just really rewarding in the same way.

HRS:  When you’re mountaintopping, what’s your preferred equipment?  What are you using right now, just a sketch of things?  I know you prefer CW mode, and you’ve built your own light weight portable key to suit your needs.

N0TU---KX1wpalm

Photo courtesy NØTU

WGØAT:  Yea, and there’s a whole range of portable gear these days, like the (Yaesu) FT-817 that’s both voice SSB and CW, and goes from 160 meters up to 440 MHz. But I’ve now transitioned into a KX3, the Elecraft radio.  A little more pricey, but wow!  It’s up there with the high quality rigs.  Antenna-wise I’ve used wire antennas, I’ve used Buddipoles, I’ve used home-made verticals.  Wire antennas, especially end feds, are great.  I’ve made my own end fed transformer matched wires, just like a dipole but you’re end feeding it.  I use a telescoping pole or a crappy pole above tree line on the mountains to get the wires up in the air, in a sloper configuration. I try lots of different gear, commercial and home-brewed.

HRS:  Let’s talk about the SOTA thing for a bit.  Can you give us a sketch of what SOTA is, what it’s about, and how operators can participate whether or not they’re in a mountainous area?

WGØAT:  Sure!  For SOTA, or Summits On The Air, all these chasers are sitting out there anxiously waiting to make contact with you because you’re on a mountain.  The Brits originally concocted the idea 10 or 11 years ago, and basically it is an excuse to hike to a mountain top, set up your radio, and transmit.  It’s fashioned after Islands On The Air, IOTA, where it is an excuse to sail to an island and set up the rig to have all your buddies contact you.  But, in order to make sure you’ve got a lot of folks to talk to you need to send out an invitation, or an alert, that you’ll be on the air.  So today I can pull out a little app on my smart phone (SOTA Goat) and I can find people out there all over the place.  Spots, for people who are on the air right now.

HRS:  Let’s see… so the app provides the SOTA stations’ call sign, geographic location, frequency and mode…

WGØAT:  Yep, and over on the far right it tells what points (SOTA program points) are available by contacting that station.  Some people are goal oriented or destination oriented.  For me, it’s all about destination.  But as a chaser – a person in their ham shack at home making contact with a SOTA peak activator – a chaser can build points to help keep track of their SOTA contacts. They can go on the web and see who is activating peaks, and they can schedule a few contacts through their day.  Activators – the operators on the mountains – can log points, too.  There is a robust web site where you can register as a chaser or an activator or both. All this information is at http://w0-sota.org, or if you’re outside the WØ call area, try http://na-sota.org to access those other areas’ info.  You know, even Hawaii has become really active with SOTA, having something like 75 qualifying peaks out there.

HRS:  Well, I reckon in Hawaii you could do SOTA and IOTA together, huh?

WGØAT:  Yea! Or, go on an anniversary honeymoon to Hawaii and bring your radio along…    Well, maybe not.  But anyway, as a registered SOTA chaser or activator you log your points online, and once you obtain enough points you receive a little award.  For instance, as a chaser once you’ve accumulated 1000 points you become a Shack Sloth.

HRS:  A shack sloth?

sota-sloth-certificate

Example SOTA Shack Sloth Certificate

WGØAT:  Yea, you know, one of those three-toed, slow moving beasts. And, you can get web-validated wall certificates or you can send off for a nice acrylic, engraved ornament that has your score and maybe an image of the shack sloth.  It’s all for fun and a great excuse to get off your duff and get outdoors.  So, any ham, anywhere, mountains or not, can participate in SOTA fun.

HRS:  I think SOTA is a great idea, because it provides a little incentive, even a little low-key, friendly competition if you want it, and it is a great way for fellow operators to interact, exchange experiences and ideas, and learn from one another.

WGØAT:  Exactly!  It has made me a much better operator, as far as emergency communications skills are concerned.  I could readily go set up a portable station anywhere, on a mountaintop or open area.  You know the equipment, you’ve done it a hundred times, you have all the backup equipment and know what to worry about and to check out in advance, what power sources you need or can use.  You have plan B and plan C already constructed in your head.

HRS:  What do you recommend for beginners, for new Technicians or operators who want to exercise their new skills and learn how to do these things?  And maybe those folks looking to upgrade to General Class.  How can they get started with mountaintopping and SOTA?

WGØAT:  An Elmer or even just a buddy who has similar interests is a great advantage, because you can read a book or a magazine and get all the theory, and that’s great.  But being able to actually watch somebody catch the fish, or better yet watching them hook the fish and letting you reel it in, provides that epiphany of “Aha, this is great!” and really helps to get that fire burning and drives you to do more.  So, someone else that you can learn from or that you can learn together with really helps in getting started, I think.

HRS:  So, can somebody get started with SOTA and mountaintop operating with just a simple HT radio?

WGØAT:  Absolutely. You can just get on 146.52 MHz two-meter calling frequency with your HT from a peak, indicating that you’re a low power station from the mountain and looking for contacts.  It’s about that simple.  You don’t need to use CW to get started, and you don’t need an HF rig or any special equipment to get started.

HRS:  Do you need goats?  Are goats required for SOTA ops or any mountaintopping action?

Acorn Goat

Chick Magnet

WGØAT:  <Chuckling> Not necessarily, although they are chick magnets.  If you had a big, soft puppy tagging along that’s just as effective.  But it’s really all about communicating, and when you contact folks you can keep it simple in describing what you’re doing – “I’m operating from the top of a mountain, using just 5 watts, making as many contacts as I can,” that sort of thing.  Or, you can launch off into a big rag chew session if you want, and make some new friends.  And all of a sudden when you’ve got a group of folks trying to call you all at once, it’s sort of like being at a party and you have to multitask, listen well, and let others transmit and talk, even when you want to get that next contact logged.  It takes a little skill to manage it all on the air, to be patient, and that skill comes with time and experience.  But it’s a lot of fun and I recommend that everybody who is capable and licensed give it a try.

HRS:  What’s the one contact or experience from your mountaintop adventures that you remember above all the others? Anything come to mind?

WGØAT:  Hanna in Australia.  She is a young girl who watched my video of Field Day where it was raining, of course, and the goats were all of a sudden under my tarp with me because they don’t like the water and they’re susceptible to pneumonia, too.  Anyway, we were huddled under the tarp and the goats were moving around trying to get away from the drips.  Rooster was being a knucklehead saying, “Get out of here, Peanut,” head-butting him, and I grabbed Rooster’s collar and pulled him in, saying “Look here buddy, this is OUR tarp and we’re ALL going to be under here!”  And I had to wrestle with him over to the other side of me.  Well, little Hanna watched that video and then had her dad, who was in military communications service, send a poncho that she had to the Goat Hiker, and it was only for Peanut, so that Peanut could have his own tarp!  So, I did a video for Hanna that showed Peanut had his tarp and he was just happy as punch!  And what’s amazing is that the goats have fans all over the world.  I had no intent to create this kind of notoriety, it just sort of happened.

HRS:  Well it surely attracts a lot of people to the hobby. That’s great!

WGØAT:  Yea, I’ve had a lot of folks contact me and say, “I got into the hobby because of your videos. I just wanted some of that fun!”  I’m glad it’s had that kind of effect on some folks, and I’m just doing what I like to do, you know?  It’s the videos that have helped me to share it.

HRS:  Where can folks see your videos and get to know Rooster and Peanut?

WGØAT:  You can search online for “Rooster and Peanut,” and a bunch of stuff will pop up, or you can search on “Goat Hiker” on YouTube.  [http://www.youtube.com/user/goathiker]

HRS:  Any last words of advice for our readers or for people who want to get involved in this aspect of ham radio?

WGØAT:  Just with ham radio in general…  There is so much information with the Internet, and so many people willing to connect and share their knowledge and experiences, so reach out there and find a buddy with similar interests, share your experiences with another person, learn something from others, and let them learn from you.  There’s no reason NOT to do it.

HRS:  Steve, thank you, sir, for the time and the chat.  You are a fantastic ambassador for ham radio to the world, and especially to outdoor enthusiasts, and we really appreciate what you’re doing.  It’s been very interesting to hear how this all evolved and came about, the whole story with you and the goats is a truly unique episode in ham radio history, and HamRadioSchool.com is honored to be with you and learn more about it, first-hand.  Thanks!

WGØAT:  Stu, it’s my pleasure!  Thank you for inviting me to talk, and thanks for the beverage.  Catch you on the air soon!

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AfterWords:  Only a few days after my interview with Steve, Rooster goat passed away unexpectedly early, as goatly years go.  He was in his barn and seemed to have died suddenly without suffering. Steve made the discovery early one brisk morning in autumn 2013.  Steve received uncountable condolences from Rooster’s fans around the globe via social media and online postings, and of course personally face-to-face in our local community.  We’ll all miss Rooster, but we’ll continue to enjoy his video Exploits with Peanut and Steve.

Acorn & Barley

Acorn & Barley scale Monument Rock, near their new home.

Around the start of December 2013 Steve acquired not one, but two new goats!  Acorn and Barley joined Peanut’s herd, horns and all!  You can see their trek from the East Coast in this Goat Hiker video.  And rest assured, more Goat Hiker videos are on the way featuring these new additions to the WGØAT clan.  Check it out soon.  73!

~WØSTU