::: TASMANIAN HERITAGE

 

Shooting the Franklin

By JOHNSON DEAN | Life in the late 1930s and early 1940s was tough. With wartime privations and lack of electronic amusements, kids had to find their own fun. For Johnson Dean, growing up in Evandale, it began with the nearby Esk River for swimming and canoeing, and he found like-minded friends with whom to share his first adventures. They went on to try their heavy homemade canoes on other, wild rivers.

In his book, Shooting the Franklin, Early Canoeing on Tasmania’s Wild Rivers, published in 2002, Johnson Dean vividly recalls those adventures. Bob Brown, who wrote the forward, calls them “exciting, charming and, at times, harrowing”. They start with Huck Finn-style trials on the South Esk river in the mid-1940s.

In heavy old canoes built along Canadian lines — a framework of steamed hardwood laths, covered with aged hessian and painted with tar — and depending on a few tins of food scrounged from the family’s postwar ration plus the rabbits and fish they could shoot or catch along the way, Dean and companions, including Dean’s dog Flea, made their first voyage on the South Esk.

He writes that the boys sat “on groundsheet-lined apple cases, one of which doubled as a seat for the bowman in each canoe. The sternman sat high on the rear deck. It didn’t seem to occur to us that a lower centre of gravity would be more sensible … needless to say we capsized many times.”

But it was also idyllic.

“These balmy summer holidays spent in seeming isolation, lazily drifting over long wide stretches, created a dreamlike state in which we were suspended between sky and water, only waking when the murmuring of a rapid ahead called for action.”

1949, King River

Flowing south, between the Eldon Range to the east and the Tyndalls to the west, the Eldon River is joined by the South Eldon to form the King.

“Our folboats, or fold boats, purchased from army disposals for 25 pounds ($50), were 17-feet long kayaks. Each wooden skeleton had to be assembled in two halves prior to being forced into a toughened rubberised skin. The deck was enclosed with canvas tied to the gunwales and a splash cover around our body kept out most of the water when running the rapids. We fitted wide keep boards to protect the folboats’ skins.”

Left: Map-covered notebooks used to record the gang's adventures. Click here to see larger version.

The adventurers were Johnson Dean, John Hawkins, Jeff Weston and Joe Scarlett. “Sometimes,” writes Dean, “things did not according to plan.

In the excitement of departure we left behind the carefully soldered tins of wheatmeal biscuits, our staple diet

The current would take over, sending the canoe on a different course … Log jams were a hazard … In the excitement of departure we left behind the carefully soldered tins of wheatmeal biscuits, our staple diet. If Weston hadn’t shot a wallaby with a .303 army rifle we would have been forced to abandon the trip earlier. The other disaster was that somehow we managed to get nearly all of our matches wet.”

One folboat was lost after it jammed under a waterfall. The four of them packed into the remaining craft — “but progress was too slow for starving men. It was time to walk out.”

1951, first encounter Franklin River

“Why had the Franklin never been canoed? It could be easily accessed …

However, we soon realised that getting to and from the river was the easy part. Once on the river we would have to cover 60miles (100 km) and, more significantly, descend 1000 feet (300m).

On the afternoon of December 28, 1951, we launched our folboats: Weston, Joe Scarlett, Hawkins and I. The river was high and fast. Hawkins and I capsized in the first rapid and lost a paddle and a boot. After this we tied everything in.

The danger then is that it will keep rolling and to avoid drowning you must escape as quickly as possible and, once free, drop well below the surface to use the reverse flow to cary you downstream

We managed to get caught in a ‘stopper’, a concentrated flow of water falling over a drop into comparatively still water which creates a surface backflow, drawing you back under the falling water. To help prevent this happening you build up enough speed to keep moving after plunging over the fall. The worst situation is to go over sideways. Then you have no momentum to carry you away and the effect of the reverse flow is exacerbated. The best you can hope to do is push yourself away with your paddle. If this fails the canoe rapidly fills, becomes unstable and capsises. The danger then is that it will keep rolling and to avoid drowning you must escape as quickly as possible and, once free, drop well below the surface to use the reverse flow to cary you downstream.

This time we were lucky in getting away with a water-filled kayak, but before we could get ashore to empty it we were swept into the next rapid, hit rocks and broke several of the five-foot (1.5m) lengths of dowelling. These were replaced with spares but in future we would have to cut new ones from saplings in the bush.”

Nevertheless, “we revelled in shooting some excellent rapids”. Until it rained and the larger rapids were more formidable than ever. Between these, whirlpools threatened disaster. However it was a large flat rock that proved their undoing. The canoe nosedived and jammed and they were swept away from it.

I sighted Hawkins floating downstream, supported by his Mae West. What puzzled me was that he looked relaxed. Then it hit me; he must be unconconsious …

Dean recalls: “Surfacing, I anxiously looked around for Hawkins. He was nowhere to be seen. I don’t know how far I was swept downstream before being able to claw my way onto a slippery rock. From there I sighted Hawkins floating downstream, supported by his Mae West. What puzzled me was that he looked relaxed. Then it hit me; he must be unconconsious. I had to get him out as quickly as possible.”

Meanwhile his two companions had struggled free, managing to swim with their kayak to a rocky backwater. They were convinced the others had not survived. “What a joyous reunion” records Dean. “We were all still aive.”

They decided to get out, and “left the forbidding gorge with no regrets”. Continued …

PART I | PART II | PART III