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Fourth generation Huon pine recoverer

When Brendan Morrison stands on the southern shore of Macquarie Harbour he is in a dangerously exposed spot – 40km from civilisation on the fringe of a World Heritage area. Source: ABC News

He is sometimes there alone, but steps carefully and comfortably in his family’s adventuresome footsteps.

He is the fourth generation of his Strahan family to work with the prized timber and has one of only two Huon pine salvage licences for the huge Macquarie Harbour shoreline, work that recalls the unique culture of Huon pining on Tasmania’s west coast.

The cutting of live Huon pine was stopped in the 1960s, after nearly a century of a culture that saw bushmen rowing wooden dinghies, or punts, up the beautiful Gordon River to find the trees which are unique to south west Tasmania.

The selectively felled sawlogs, prized for shipbuilding, were wrangled into the water, lumberjack style, bound together and towed back to Strahan as huge log-rafts.

The Morrison brothers, Reg, Ron and Roy, were renowned as pioneering bushmen, even within that intrepid tradition.

They once rowed a wooden punt several miles up the notoriously wild Franklin River, hauling their boat around rapids and sometimes over cliffs and ridges. On the return journey they rode the Franklin’s now world famous rapids, in that same wooden dinghy. 

The sheer isolation and danger of such a journey in the 1940s is truly hard to fathom. Even today it would be a highly dangerous undertaking.

In 2014, Mr Morrison uses a compact, custom made barge to get his logs back from an area that still rates as one of Australia’s wildest places.

Though weather forecasting has made it a safer voyage across Macquarie Harbour, getting caught in a north-west blow would mean confronting wind-waves up to two metres high while loaded with logs.

There are only two licenses to salvage Huon pine that flows out of the river system where it grows best.

Forestry Tasmania has one and Mr Morrison the other.

Sometimes I’ll just ‘go for a drive’ up the Gordon because the reflections up there in the very still weather that I work in are just phenomenal. Pretty special.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Mr Morrison is the only individual who takes pine from Macquarie Harbour though. Poaching of the timber has been an issue to varying degrees in the decades since the tree was protected.

“Only about 12 months ago I found a little stash of about eight logs in Farm Cove,” Mr Morrison said.

“They were pulled up into the bush. Someone else came across them and let me know they were there so I went and salvaged them before they went elsewhere.”

Mr Morrison acknowledges that there will always be a little bit of pine stolen and often by locals who feel some sense of entitlement to the timber once cut by families and once freely available.

He has himself come across logs stamped with the Morrison brand that would have been cut by his great uncles more than 50 years ago.

The original pining gangs were part of a dangerous but in retrospect, romantic occupation. They built simple huts on the banks of the Gordon River and often several kilometres further up in tributary rivers and creeks.

The straightest trees, usually sought for shipbuilding, were often felled and moved close to river and creek banks ready to be flushed downstream by winter flooding.

The logs were branded, like cattle, by the individual piners hammering a branded iron into the cut end of the log to leave an impression.

Piners would gather at a slow bend on the lower Gordon River they called the ‘boom camp’ after the floating catch-all line they ran across the river to corral the logs as they floated down with the current.

The brands allowed each piner to determine which logs were their own and these were then joined with steel cable to form rafts that could be towed, very, very slowly back to Strahan.

The peak time for the industry was in the 1930s.

Men would think nothing of working waist deep in cold water all day and camping each night for weeks and months at a time.

Brendan Morrison’s trips to salvage timber in the 21st century typically involve staying out for one night, usually in one of a number of shelter huts in the area that began life as pining camps.

“I often stay at the Kelly Basin hut, Reindeer Lodge. I stayed in the Narrows Hut in Birches Inlet this last trip and occasionally at the boom camp on the Gordon,” Mr Morrison said.

These days the Gordon River itself is a World Heritage area and no log salvage is allowed beyond the shorelines right at the mouth, where the river meets Macquarie Harbour.

The salvaged timber can be manhandled onto the barge, bigger pieces need to be carefully loaded with the aid of a small crane attached to the boat. Most of the timber Mr Morrison finds is best suited to being milled and otherwise cut for craft use and is sold through the family’s sawmill right on the main wharf in Strahan.