Gordon River Adventure

Film Making on the Gordon River

(click on any image to enlarge)

Sunrise on Macquarie Harbour
Sometimes an adventure can become a disaster when bad weather, people friction, or bad decisions prevail. Other times, an adventure can flow from one high to an even greater one when the team merges to successfully overcome every adversity, especially when the adventure is blessed with perfect conditions. Happily this is about one of those events.

From the early 1900s, the Morrison family of Strahan were actively involved in harvesting the unique timbers found around Macquarie Harbour located on the west coast of Tasmania. Today there are but a few in this family working in an industry that has been greatly altered by the passage of time. What was once harvested and then used extensively in shipbuilding and furniture making is now protected. On the shores of downtown Strahan, Grant Morrison, known locally as Snowy, runs the family sawmill producing Huon, Celery Top, and King Billy Pine products for the craft and tourist industries. Snowy’s cousin, Ronnie Morrison, a local identity known best for his development of the local salmon fish farm industry, worked as a young man alongside his father Keith and uncle Reg, deep in what is today the world heritage forests surrounding Macquarie Harbour. Many years might have passed, but Ronnie Morrison retains crisp memories of his time swinging an axe and cranking a Wallaby jack, and it was with Ronnie as team leader that we ventured into wild country seen by few in the modern era.

Gordon RiverMap

Home base – Sir John Falls : Furthest camp explored – Denison River

The purpose of this venture – to document the history of an era fast slipping away and becoming a dim memory. The storyline – an experienced bushman shows a newcomer the old ways of harvesting the ancient Pines found in Tasmania’s southwest. Our team consisted of the award winning cinematographer Joe Shemesh and his sound technician Sarah; the principal actors, Ronnie Morrison and Franz Docherty; the producer/director Garry Kerr; with Ronnie Morrison’s son Deek and Jude and Jack as support crew.

piners boot piners boot closeup

Jack and Jude were fortunate to have become involved in this magical adventure because not only did we know most of the participants, our boating skills proved valuable in managing the two large support vessels, two 60hp tinnies and a wooden Piners punt. In addition, two years earlier we had explored the Gordon and Sprent Rivers by kayak and on foot, looking for Piners’ remnants. We have a keen interest in the history of the Huon Piners.

Maatsuyker - Fitzroy 80 Maatsuyker
Maatsuyker – a Fitzroy 80


Huon PineLast century, there were many families involved in harvesting these unique slow growing trees that live many hundreds, maybe even thousands of years. With wood light cream to yellow in colour, soft, straight grained, light in weight, it is durable and easily worked. The sapwood is pale, very narrow and is not easily distinguishable. The durability of the timber is due to the presence of aromatic oils that makes it highly resistant to fungal and insect attack. Fallen logs can lay on the forest floor for many decades and yet its timber remains as good as when it was felled. In fact, logs recently dug from the bottom of the lakes formed when the first Gordon River Dam was created produced perfect timber. Today, Forestry Tasmania still salvage logs washed out the rivers and those found in old log dumps atop the Teepookana Plateau where the very best Huon grow. These logs are sold to saw millers who cut them into timbers used in the boat and craft industry.

Filming on site

a piners punt

piners punt – their lifeline

The Huon Pine Story“The Huon Pine Story” by Garry Kerr and Harry McDermott is a wonderful reference book that is also endowed with many beautiful photographs. Here is their description of the piners:

The piners life differed totally to that of any other logger of his time. His was an amphibious operation using the rivers and creeks as his highways and service roads to give him access to the pine beds and to float out the logs.

He was the only bushman in Australia who had a rowing punt as a major part of his equipment. In many cases it was his only means of transport in and out the forests. It was his lifeline. There were places where to lose a punt meant death by starvation, so wild and remote was their area of work.

The Huon Pine StoryPiners typically spent months at a time upriver, living in crude huts or tents, and falling trees in the dank wet wilderness. Some only came out to civilisation for a week twice a year. It was a life hard on men, woman, and marriages. This all took place in country of unparalleled natural beauty. Some piners loved the rivers and the scenery, while others despised it as a leech-ridden work camp, remote from the comforts of civilization.

Dennison River

Dennison River

Olga Gorge

Olga Gorge

Huon Pine Branchlet

Huon Pine Foliage at Sir John Falls Jetty by Nik Sands

In making this documentary several points needed to be made clear. Ronnie and the crew were determined to correct the myth that these trees were eliminated by the piners of the past. Everywhere we ventured inside the World Heritage Parklands, along the rivers and in the forests, we witnessed with our own eyes that these trees are abundant with many mature trees surrounded by saplings and young trees. Huon pines are distinctive trees, easily spotted by their drooping deep green branchlets, akin to needles, and quite different from the other species. Myrtles, also found extensively, have a small dot shaped leaf and Blackwood, also plentiful, have large leaves and gnarly bark. But there is a species of trees that has greatly increased in numbers – Eucalyptus. These are now seen standing in great numbers well clear of the forest canopy sweeping up the hillsides and along river edges. This may be because of our changing climate, aided by the few quite large forest fires that have occurred naturally in the recent past. Whatever created the conditions for these trees to flourish has brought an ill wind to these ancient forests because Eucalypts shed branches and drop copious amounts of leaf, adding greatly to the fuel on the forest floor. If hot, dry conditions persist, the chance of intense fires grows alarmingly, and we may in fact see the demise of the ancient Huons, Celery Tops, and King Billy Pines.

The crew on Maatsuyker

The crew on Maatsuyker

job well done!

Running home after the last scene – job well done!

There are another 100 photos online showing more of the beauty, adventure and history of the Piners that worked the Gordon River.

A similar adventure can be enjoyed by all who are fit and have some bush skills by trekking the historical Eagle Creek Track that connects the Gordon with the Franklin River. See our notes on the track that was recently cleared and re-opened.


Gordon River Adventure — 2 Comments

  1. I took the Gordon river cruise 4/16. I hope to return & camp under a Lagarostrobus franklinii this summer, 2016/17. I am totally enchanted & awed by this plant!

    • Hi Peter,
      A great adventure awaits you. For the ultimate experience we suggest taking Stormbreaker to Sir John Falls and walking in to the Twin Huon camp we established. See Third Time Lucky for vids and details. When we left that track earlier this year. it was much easier going than shown there. Keep us posted, we’ll be up that way again this summer.

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