Saturday 26 January 2013

A Gordon River Journey: Part 3

Home of Little Tears

[Kayaks ashore at the Eagle Creek campsite] 

 At the far end of Limekiln Reach, a long, more or less straight stretch of the Gordon, we reach Eagle Creek campsite. Beneath a canopy of myrtle beech and laurel we find space for easily twenty tents. It is a beautiful setting, near level, above average flood level, and sheltered from light rain by its leafy canopy.

But despite appearances the site is hardly pristine. Although there’s next to nothing left, a tourist hut and jetty were built here about a century ago. They accommodated the growing interest in river travel in this beautiful area. We’re not surprised that others found it an agreeable place to stay. The river flows like chocolate past green banks draped in Huon pine and ti-tree. Birds flit, float and call across the water. We set up tents and a communal tarp above the kitchen/eating area, and are glad of it when rain starts to fall.

It rains all night. It is gentle by West Coast standards – parts of this area receive close to five metres of rainfall per annum – but it is soaking nonetheless. It continues into the morning, perfect weather for lying in our tent and listening to the birds. I struggle to identify them all, managing to pick out Jo witee, green rosellas, golden whistlers, currawongs, grey fantails, and three species of honey-eaters. But there is one call, sharp and sweet, that I don’t recognise. Perhaps, like the whitey wood that’s all around our campsite, it’s a west-coast-only species.

European use of Eagle Creek pre-dated popular tourism by a century. Even before the penal settlement was established on nearby Sarah Island, Huon pine had been found in the area. The first specimens were picked up as drift wood in 1804, just a year after European settlement. It didn’t take long for sources of this remarkable timber to be discovered: the Huon River first, then the Gordon River and the Port Davey basin.

[A young Huon pine droops over the banks of the Gordon River]
Huon pine (Lagarostrobos franklinii) is only found in Tasmania. It is not a true pine, but rather a podocarp, and thus related to species found in New Zealand and South America. It was formerly considered part of the Dacrydium genus, whose name means “little tear” because of the drops of sap exuded by a cut tree.

What made it so likely to be cut was its amazing resistance to rot, even when totally immersed in water. This was due to its impregnatioin with the oil methyl eugenol, which repels both rot and borers. That made it a supreme ship building timber. Its slow growth and tight annual rings also made it wonderfully workable, including for high value furniture work. Its rarity – it only grows in very high rainfall swamps and forests in the south and west – boosted its economic value.

[A piece of Huon pine, showing the very tight annual rings] 

In the Gordon catchment Huon pine was heavily harvested by piners and then convicts from the early 1800s. Convicts had to work in appalling weather, cutting, then hauling the trees out of sodden forests and down muddy slopes to the river or the harbour. They would then fix the logs together into rafts of around 100 logs, before sailing or towing them back to Sarah Island. There the best logs would be used to build ships, the rest would be taken back to Hobart.

Despite the high value of the timber, the costs involved in running such a remote penal “enterprise” made it uneconomic. The penal settlement was shut down in 1834, just 13 years after it had started.

It seems the convicts hadn’t worked the Huon pine any further upstream than Butlers Island, so there was still plenty of scope for privateers to continue logging. Gordon River pining continued in fits and starts, depending on economic and political circumstances, right into the 1960s.

[A Huon pine survivor, still growing despite everything] 

When the rain eases at our Eagle Creek camp, we’re itching for a bit of exercise. We turn inland, walking up the Eagle Creek track, which leads over the Elliot Range to the lower Franklin River. We won’t be heading that far, just stretching our legs by climbing out of the creek’s catchment.

We soon realise we’re going where others beside walkers and rafters have trodden. David points out that the scooped path we’ve taken for a walking track is actually a “shoe track”. This, he explains, is the groove made by the piners, who attached a metal “shoe” – curled like the front of a snow sled – onto the leading edge of a log. Bullocks or horses would then haul the log down the track, the shoe acting like the front of a sled and helping the log to slide more easily.

[An old Huon pine shoe track] 

It seems a very basic technology, but it was widely used where tramlines weren’t possible … and convicts no longer available. It has us thinking about the harsh lives of everyone associated with Huon pine harvesting. From convicts to privateers, it seems that it wasn’t only the Huon pine that shed tears.

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