OStories of the rivers…

Grand adventures on wild rivers

In the days when the rivers ran wild, in the days before the dams and the crowds, there were the intrepid few who dared Tasmania’s wild rivers. This is the story of a few of them.

Russ Grayson
Nov 28, 2020 · 7 min read
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I CAME ACROSS Johnson Dean’s book at Petrarch’s Bookshop in Launceston, Tasmania. It was on the specials table out on the footpath where the bargains are. Should I buy it even at this discounted price, I wondered? I took my time in deciding. Maybe, I thought, I could pick it up on my way back. I’ve made that decision before only to find the book gone. So, I took the risk. I bought it.

That was some years ago now. I thought the book out of print, but just recently I found it on sale at Petrachs, only now it was full price.

Patrach’s is a busy little bookshop in Launceston, Tasmania, the state where Johnson Dean and his band of adventurous friends made those early riverine journeys. It’s one of the diminished number of independent booksellers and is the only stop-in-town for the literati and avid reader.

Shooting the Franklin — early canoeing on Tasmania’s wild rivers, is a tale of hazardous voyages into what was literally the unknown. It is a tale of adventure, friendship and coincidence in a time now gone.

The South Esk—the early adventures

If you take a look at a map you can’t help but notice how the South Esk makes a grand curve from its hill country origin to its confluence with the Macquarie and on into the Tamar at Launceston. The South Esk is where Dean’s story starts during his boyhood in the war years of the early 1940s. It was on this river that he and his friend, John Hawkins, started their canoeing careers in home-made, canvas covered boats. Hawkins would join him on later adventurous riverine excursions into the wilderness.

Graduating from the South Esk, Dean and friends hatched an over-ambitious plan to ascend the Huon River, portage across the button grass plains and put in on the Serpentine that drained Lake Pedder which in those days was not submerged below the waters of a Hydro-Electric Commission dam. They would follow the Serpentine to its confluence with the Gordon and follow that river all the way to the west coast town of Strahan. The trip never eventuated and there are serious doubts about its possibility of success.

The King drains to Tasmania’s west coast, as do others Dean and friends would attempt. Like those others, the King twists and winds between steep, forest-clad mountains, draining the copious rainfall that settles on these wild lands. The voyage turned into a near disaster.

Others that followed didn’t. Over the next 20 or more years, Dean and his friends were to descend the Franklin, Pieman and the Gordon, making their way by still pools and fierce rapids through Tasmania’s western wilderness.


Dean’s story is also one of the evolution of the canoe from the 1940s to the coming of the ‘rubber ducky’, the bright yellow inflatable rafts in which adventurers of the 1970s made journeys down the Franklin and other wild rivers. It’s the story of how collapsible, army-surplus kayaks of waterproofed canvas stretched over a wooden frame (which broke in collisions with rocks while descending rapids on some journeys) gave way to the fiberglass Canadian canoes that Dean and companions modified to keep the water out on their 1958 descent of the Franklin. Both types were trashed in the rapids.

The rubber ducky was the craft which opened the rivers to a new generation of water-borne adventurers. Basic and capable of carrying one person and their pack, the rubber ducky enjoyed a surge of popularity as the future of Tasmania’s wilderness and its wild rivers started to attract the adventurous. The latter years of the seventies brought increasing numbers onto the rivers.

In the last paragraph of the last page of the book, Dean looks back and sums up those decades of river adventure. He concludes with the thought of how fortunate he was to have lived at a time when it was possible to have made such journeys. Those journeys are no longer possible. Discovering the rivers at the end of their mellennia-long lives as free-flowing, wild streams, Dean’s band of adventurers have left us a minimal but revealing insight into the wild rivers before the Tasmanian government policy of hydro-industrialisation brought about their end. Hydro-electric development would dam all of those streams with the exception of the Franklin. That river was saved in the late-1980s thanks to a determined and bitter nationwide campaign.

There are glimpses of the coming of the hydro in the book when Dean mentions the presence of Hydro-Electric Commission exploratory works on the Franklin, and when their presence in Queenstown drew comments from locals about their being ‘greenies’. As he noted, times were starting to change in Tasmania.

The end of an age of exploration

The late 1940s to the 1970s, the years of Dean’s adventures, were an era of DIY exploration in Tasmania. Not only were there incredible river journeys, there were journeys on foot through the mountains and across the soggy, button grass plains of the interior by people like Olegas Truchanus, who also canoed the Gordon and made long, solo journeys in the mountains.

Dean’s book documents a time when the wild places were largely unregulated, when going into them was done with a sense of self-responsibility and freedom. It is such a contrast to the situation today, when tourism authorities and operators have popularised Tasmania’s mountains and rivers to such an extent that the national parks service has had to spend big to construct boardwalks and hardened campsites.

Coincidence and presience

There is an interesting little story that hangs from Dean and friends’ grand adventures on the wild rivers, and it is told in the preface to the book by Bob Brown with whom the Franklin River is forever linked. It started when Bob was a young doctor at Alice Springs hospital. There, he recounts, he assisted a senior doctor whose name was John Hawkins.

Although he couldn’t have known it then, for Bob Brown the meeting was something of an omen. It was that same John Hawkins with which Dean made his journey down the South Esk all those decades ago. It was the same John Hawkins with which Dean descended the Franklin River in 1958. This Bob Brown only later discovered, and you can only wonder if he experienced a sense of prescience.

That was not the end to the curious coincidences. The next came in 1973 as Bob drove up to a look at a house he was interested in buying at Liffey, in the north of Tasmania. He bought that house from someone named John Dean, the same Dean who was in that first party to descend the Franklin.

A tale of times gone

Now, where Dean and crew went there are commercial rafters descending the Franklin. Anyone with the money can go. The wilderness is being commoditised, adventure made as safe as it can be, adventure captured by the tourism industry Tasmania relies on for the larger part of its income.

Shooting the Franklin — early canoeing on Tasmania’s wild rivers isn’t only a tale of adventure. It is history, too. Like all history it is a story of times long gone, of times when Tasmania was different, when it was wilder, the wilderness more remote and not yet threatened and politicised, of times when those with the daring to venture into it were far fewer.

Dean, J. 2002. Shooting the Franklin — early canoeing on Tasmania’s wild rivers; self-published. ISBN 0 9581744 0 7.

By Road & Track

By road and track — journeys, people, places and encounters…

Russ Grayson

Written by

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.

By Road & Track

By road and track — journeys, people, places and encounters in life.

Russ Grayson

Written by

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.

By Road & Track

By road and track — journeys, people, places and encounters in life.

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