John Dean and the Franklin River

By James McCormack July 27, 2012
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Pioneer adventurer John Dean was the first to paddle the Franklin River.

FACING FREEZING WATER AND roaring rapids in rafts that were often less than capabale, and venturing into unknown territory, John Dean and his friends paddled their way into the history books when they conquered the Franklin River – after many failed attempts.1950. A clear spring day.

The twin engines of a vintage Monospar echoed off hillsides as the aircraft pursued a snaking course down a tremendous valley full of gorges, sheer cliffs, and rushing white water. On board was 24-year-old John Dean, and he was scouting the Franklin River.

He was accompanied by John Hawkins, a mate who’d accompanied him on trips down the King and Pieman rivers. Together now, they peered down at the uninviting rush of water below: Descension Gorge, a stretch of river soon to nearly cost Hawkins his life.

No-one had yet attempted running the Franklin. If caught in high water, many sections existed where escape to high ground would be almost impossible. And if forced to retreat, a long march through some of Tasmania’s wildest country would ensue. Nevertheless, the plane trip convinced the pair the river could be run, so they teamed up with Joe Scarlett and Jeff Weston, companions from the King River trip.

The Franklin River expedition

On 28 December 1952, Dean said the four put into the Collingwood River, a Franklin tributary.

“There was a sense of trepidation. In some ways we were reasonably careful. We didn’t just go in blindly. But we knew we were on our own. If we had a disaster, we knew there was nobody there to help us. We couldn’t call helicopters in or anything like that. They didn’t exist.”
Figuring on taking at least 14 days, their folboats – a type of collapsible kayak used in WWII – were loaded.

Initially the craft seemed respectable; it soon became evident, however, that they weren’t. But, says Dean, “We were idiots really; we carried far too much gear. We had no idea about travelling lightly.”

For the first three days, the party revelled in shooting a succession of rapids. At the end of the fourth day, though, the heavens opened. The river rose 2 m overnight, forcing the group to stay put the next day.

The following day the river remained full; small rapids were smoothed out, larger ones were thundering. They decided, however, to depart regardless. Deep in Descension Gorge – that stretch of water seen from the Monospar – Dean and Hawkins got into trouble and were tipped into the torrent. And there was a complication: Hawkins had never learned to swim.

“I tried to teach him over the years, but he got no further than dog paddling. But I admire him for it. He had the guts to persist with these trips, even though he was really frightened of the water.”

When, to his relief, Dean finally saw Hawkins, he was drifting downstream, face up, looking strangely relaxed. He then realised Hawkins was unconscious. Soon he was swept from view. For an hour Dean scrambled downstream with no sight of his paddling partner, increasingly convinced he’d died.

“I wonder now why I persisted; there seemed such a slim chance of finding him. [But when I did] there was a huge sense of relief. I still get emotional thinking about it. I presume Hawkins was grateful for me finding him. He wasn’t the sort of guy who shared his emotions.”

Reunited, the first task was retrieving Dean’s folboat. But in doing so, it broke free. For a second, Dean had the chance to grab it; but he was so demoralised by earlier events he just stood there. He let it go. The kayak washed away downriver, never to be seen again.

Down a craft and with Hawkins weak from both shock and hypothermia, the trip was over. Despite the long walk ahead, no-one felt sorry to leave.”We all resolved we wouldn’t go near [the Franklin] again. It gave us such a hell of a scare. It took a long while to build up enough courage to start to think about doing it again.”

The Franklin River expedition: Second and third attempts

January 1958. Six years on. Enough time had passed for Dean and Hawkins to consider a second attempt. They felt confident this time; for starters they knew what to expect. But they also believed they had superior craft, built from a new, near unbreakable, wonder material called fibreglass. Using a design Hawkins arrived at through experimentation, Dean constructed a Canadian-style canoe.

They were joined by Trevor Newland and Henry Crocker, who’d built a canoe identical in all but colour. On 7 January, they put into the Franklin. But it took just a day to realise these canoes were far from ideal. Not only were they unstable, they weren’t strong enough for portaging, and they quickly developed minor cracks.
But worse followed. At Nasty Notch – not yet even at the point of Hawkins’ earlier near-demise – Dean’s canoe lodged under a rock, snapping in two. They spent three days repairing it, joining the halves to create a craft

60 cm shorter than the original. Before continuing, though, sheets of rain thundered down. They waited four days for the raging torrent to subside; it never did. Now two weeks behind schedule, there was again no choice but to stash the canoes and abandon the trip.

This time, though, they never thought they wouldn’t return – so much money was invested in the gear and canoes. On 15 December 1958, Dean and Hawkins put into the Franklin once more, this time in Hawkins’ canoe. Trevor and Henry meanwhile walked in to the stashed canoes. This time they would stay out of trouble. Until the Great Ravine.

“It was quite a disaster. We didn’t know what was round the bend…[so] I lowered myself down [in my canoe] on a rope. But the dashed rope caught on a runnel, and started to tip the canoe. Deciding discretion was the better part of valour I leapt out onto a rock. Then the rope finally broke and the canoe went downstream, hitting a rock. And then the canoe broke in half. Again. I was just about in tears out of frustration.”

Dean was trapped on the rock for hours. But he was eventually rescued, and continued on in Hawkins’ canoe, avoiding major incidents for the remainder of the trip.

On that plane trip years earlier, Dean saw – at the junction of the Franklin and Gordon rivers – Pyramid Island. He thought that if he ever reached it, there should be some kind of celebration. Three attempts, three craft and seven years after first setting off, it was finally time to stop on the island, and to boil a billy.