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Packrafting the Franklin and Lower Gordon Rivers January 1981

Recently discovered home movie of packrafting the Franklin River;

January 1981:


I had never seen this 8mm footage until July of 2014. Unfortunately most members of the trip party drifted apart and lost contact with each other for over 30 years. This year I made the effort to get back in contact with one of the blokes, Mark Gibson of Brisbane. Mark and Peter Gibson had taken an 8mm movie camera on the journey; I had forgotten the footage existed, and had never seen it. I was extremely excited when Mark sent me these files! This rough edit is a selection of highlights:

Click the picture to view:

Video snipping Franklin River

8mm movie from Franklin River; January 1981. Click to view in YouTube.

 In January of 1981 I paddled the Franklin River for the first time. I was 15 years old, in a group of 6 young men and boys, none of whom were older than 18. The group included my brother Robert McLaine, bothers Mark and Peter Gibson, Peter Slowitzky and Peter Woof. None of us had paddled a river before, however we had good bush experience for such a young group; most of us having spent up to a month straight in the Southwest of Tasmania in that or previous summers. This was two years prior to the tumultuous summer of the Blockade and the ensuing peak of river paddler numbers. We had been encouraged to paddle the river by the Lisson family of Launceston. Dennis, Dean and Dale Lisson had paddled the river the previous summer and had given us advice on equipment and expectations. They had in turn been advised by Dr. Bob Brown, who with Paul Smith had pioneered the use of small rafts on the river in 1976. The yellow and orange one-person rafts in use in the late 1970s and early 1980s were the precursor to the lightweight packrafts in use in the modern era. Our knowledge and skills were rudimentary, and our equipment matched it. Waterproofing was achieved by using plastic garbage bags. Plastic food storage barrels kept some gear semi-dry, and it was typical for each person to handle a rucsac and a barrel within their individual raft. Our paddles were home-made, mostly from timber or aluminium shafts with marine ply blades or basic fibreglass blades.

Still pictures from the 1981 Franklin River journey, taken by Robert and John McLaine:

In the first picture, Mark and Peter Gibson survey the spread of equipment at the Collingwood River Bridge prior to launch. My trusty Mountain Mule rucsac is to the left of Mark.

preparing to paddle the Franklin

The Collingwod River is the ideal introduction to wild river rafting, with gentle rapaids building to a couple of good babbling challenges towards the Franklin River junction.


Even the Franklin itself provides a good learning sequence for the engaged student, with nice introductory rapids like this small set.

John Franklin River Jan 1981

I make the approach to a small cascade.

John paddle bend sequence 1

I look like I have a reasonable line…

John paddle bend sequence 2

… however I manage to wedge the boat into the slot sideways, giving me the chance to learn about the the impressive backwards flow of stoppers.

John paddle bend sequence 3

The encounter appears to have concluded in a swim.

John paddle bend sequence 4



The picture below was taken somewhere in the middle reaches of the Franklin. By my expression it seems that my confidence and skills were developing nicely at this stage. This picture shows the home made paddles we made for our first journey down the river in 1981. The shafts were 1″ timber dowell with marine-ply blades glued and screwed into sawn slots. The central ferrule was a solid piece of stainless steel pipe, with countersunk holes to screw the shafts into place. The ferrules were kindly made by my dad. The paddles were not strong enough and repeatedly broke, requiring us to make many rough repairs. These yellow boats were also not very good. They tended to rip apart at the seams. The black patch on the stern in this picture shows a repair; we stitched with fishing line and used old car inner-tube rubber with Selley’s Quik Grip for the patches.

John triumphant

Below: We began to shoot bigger and bigger rapids, mostly successfully.

Peter Slowitzky Coruscades

Frank shot the Churn, but it was ugly. He could have lost his life in this mess. I portaged!

Peter Slowitzky Churn

Peter Slowitzky Churn2

Below: That’s me with the rope as Peter Woof approaches the Thunderush. No pretense at control; no paddle. Just holding on!

peter Woof

Once again, I was more conservative and portaged. Maybe that’s why I’m still packrafting over 30 years later!

peter Woof 2

Below: The Pig Trough Rapid

peter Slowitzky Pig Trough Rapid

mark gibson Pig Trough Rapid

Newlands Cascades

Newlands Cascades

Newlands Cascades 2

Lower Franklin Campsite, showing the tents and billies we used back then. L-R: Peter (Frank) Slowitzky, Peter Woof, Robert McLaine.

camp near Newlands Cascades

Just having fun on the Lower Franklin.

fun on double fall

double fall

Below: Big Fall was (and still is) a nasty rapid. In the first picture below, Mark is struggling to get out of the back-wash zone.

big fall 3

The next one is me, just after I’d successfully shot the drop. you can see my old-fashioned marine life-jacket tucked neatly in behind my black barrel. Our theory was that if we got caught in the stopper it would be better to have less buoyancy and hopefully come out below the white water.

big fall 2

Peter Woof on Big Fall.

big fall 1

The Lower Gordon was a blissful float during that year. This is Frank, just stretched out and relaxing. Frank sadly died young, so this is a sweet memory of Frank enjoying good times.

drifting down the Gordon

Pick-up was by the Denison Star, at Butler Island on the Lower Gordon.

denison star


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