The River Portager

Date: Friday, 17 December 2021
River: Denison River.
Water level: Environmental Flow.
Participants: 6.

This is written as half guide, half report, half the ramblings of a tired paddler so enjoy the lengthy read. I can only hope this information will let your trip run smoother.

The River Portager

The Denison River. Completely unrelenting until the very end.

Compared to descriptions such as "A summer Denison is one of life's highlights", this trips hellish portagefest during some of the worst weather the Southwest has to offer is more of a 'unforgettable adventure' then a 'highlight'.

Day 1
Justin and I arrived at Lake Gordan with Nicko's dad and brother along with their fishing boat. The 115hp motor on the back of the boat promised to get across the lake in 20 minute trips (I was doubtful of this but thoroughly pleased when the boat delivered). Shortly after Nicko arrived with Michael, Ben and Tom. The other two members of the trip unable to come due to a broken collerbone (Penny) and a new house (Janina). So far there had been no rain, nor had there been any the days previous. It was looking to be a low and scratchy start.

Having completed the journey up the lake, avoiding submerged trees and now seeing that the lake level was high enough to permit us to land, the trip was looking hopeful. A short debate about where to start found us standing on the bank of Pearce Basin with all our gear under the 11am sun. While the boat returned to pick up Ben, Tom and Nicko we set about finding the track. It was not long before the taped route was found and we returned to the beach to await the arrival of our friends.

The plan for the trip was to camp on the bank this day and do the walk tomorrow as the boat we were going to use was a RIB with a 6hp motor. Given it was before lunch and with pretrip energy, we decided to begin the walk to gain an extra day of paddling time. It was immediately apparent that paddles sticking up 10cm higher then the pack was 15cm too far to fit under any of the branches. The rest of the walk was no better with sweat pouring off us all and Ben nearly fainting. Tom's 10L water bladder kept us more then hydrated and his endless supply of hydrolight was enough to stave off Justin's cramps.

The pad was easy to follow for an experienced walker but was a struggle the entire way. I would have given nearly anything for a lighter pack and a smaller boat. The final push towards the river opened up into button grass just long enough for us to truly appreciate how horrendous Tasmanian horizontal is. A quick dip into the cool river and Coop's fried rice had us into bed to rest before tomorrow's easy paddle down a low Denison....

Day 2
With a astronomical amount of faff and very warm weather we set off paddling at 11:30am in shorts and t-shirts. The low water level saw us wading down river frequently. Seeing the rain in the distance we stopped for lunch on a rocky island and got the drysuits on the go. Padding on, it wasn't long until we arrived at the Truchanas Huon Pine Reserve with some of Tasmania's last old growth Huon Pines. I had truly never imagined that Huon could grow straight and tall after seeing the shaggy, flacid leftovers from the days of the piners. Justin showed his appreciation for the pines by "fertilising" them. It was early afternoon when we took off to paddle Marriots Gorge which was said to "have the most enjoyable grade 3 rapids on River". Little did we know that the Denison is a completely different beast at low water.

Arriving at the Gorge it was immediately obvious that there is not nearly enough water to paddle any of the features. So began the portage. Not just one portage mind you. Nearly every single feature was unrunnable due to having too little water, or the low water level forcing you towards strainers that would normally be covered, out of sight, out of mind. During this time we did find some rapids to run with me losing my paddle under a rock, thankfully this was easily recovered.

With the light fading and the portages not finished, it was clear we wouldn't make Roslyn's Pools tonight. We pushed as hard as we could, racing against the remaining daylight and steep gorge walls to find a campsite. With 20 minutes of light left, Coops walked back to us with the promise of openish ground. This campsite will forever be known as "Coop's Creek" as this was exactly what it was. A creek on a shingly hill that after some light terrise building, saw Ben and Tom sleeping in their boats, Nicko in his hammock and Coop's and I in the creek. Following James example I got straight to cooking with the drysuit on. Thankfully the rain held off during the night.

Day 3
With the light of day we were able to finish the Marriots Gorge portages, paddling through Freedoms Gate (epic rapid we were able to paddle) and arrive at Roslyn's Pool to some fantastic campsites. From here it was a fairly cruzy paddle down to the confluence with the Maxwell. Safe to say the Maxwell was low and log jammed.

In a mad race against the predicted 20mm of rain we pushed onto the Denison Gorge. Spirits were generally low for more portaging. Thankfully after a few quick portages we arrived at the second planned portage for the trip to avoid the streach of water flowing entirely under bolders. The track was marked with pink tape and only took 30 minutes to carry our packs along. Within a couple of hours we had finished the portage and done the iconic cliff jump! By now it was close to 6pm so we proceeded down river 300m to where the old hydro huts were meant to be. A quick inspection found little flat ground so we decided to push onto the confluence with the Gordan that was only 1km away. Within 5 minutes we had come to a series of rapids that were too large of a undertaking in the state we were in so back upstream we went. Having clambered up the hillside, set the tarp up in the rain and got a near hypothermia Justin dry, it was time to cook dinner. It had been hailing on us this day. Despite the amount of trouble (mostly due to our tired state) we went to organising sleeping positions, we all found ourselves on top of Tom at the bottom of the uneven ground. This was the worst nights sleep by far and Ben was especially damp having not brought a mat or bivibag.

Day 4
With an early start and strong enthusiasm from Ben after the lending of thermals to replace his soaked ones, we got to work portaging this technical rapid that would be easily run at higher levels. Two emergency shits and a fallen Blackwood later we had finished the portage. And continued down to join the Gordan. Sadly due to high flows we were unable to see the splits. Keep in mind the forecast today was for heavy rain and wind which is exactly what we got. Being absolutely pelted with rain and wind that nearly stopped us in our tracks we paddled towards Sunshine Gorge after taking shelter in a cave. Trepidation was rising as noone tuely knew what to expect and we would have even enjoyed running the big waves if it weren't for the wind and rain that blew so hard that I came to a standstill halfway down a rapid. As we finished the gorge we got just a glimpse of sunshine and soon the weather eased to allow a lunch stop.

Due to the extra day from starting the walkin a day early, we had planned to camp halfway down the Gordan at Moors landing. Having floated past it without noticing we decided it was not a suitable campsite and would keep pushing. Sharkmouth rapids was quickly passed as the rainfall had made the river rise a significant amount. Ben had been very excited to see the Sprent as he was keen to paddle this in a future trip but it wasn't until we rounded a corner 500m away and could see the Sprent absolutely thundering into the Gordan that he understood what an undertaking it would be. As we approached the confluence we got more and more nervous. Understandably so, since the Sprent was flowing hard enough to create huge standing waves and was pushing all the water from the Gordan towards river right, smashing up against the sharp and pocketed cliff face. Much unlike the peaceful Olga that joined in one final drop. Ben bravely ferry glided across the turbulent Sprent and stood ready on the opposite bank with his little throwbag, looking entirely inconsequential compared the roaring river. Nicko was next to execute an excellent ferry. Justin approached the eddy line in trepidation, unsure if he would make it. Heading out into the current it was obvious he wouldn't make the eddy and was quickly washed out of sight. The guys in the safety of the eddy watched on in concern as he disappeared. From my perspective this was a very concerning sight. Tom soon made the crossing with me following after in a boat much too soft to edge across the current.

After the excitement of the Sprent and its added flow we were floating at nearly 10km/h with hope to keep this up and reach Sir John Falls within the hour. Arriving at the confluence with the Franklin we stopped for one final snack where Ben tried to pull a speedy one on Coops, saying his boat was floating away. Sadly after the Franklin the river widened until we were back to normal paddling speeds and on the last 4kms the wind picked up again. The final push to the landing was a true slog but a very fitting way to end such an unrelenting trip. Watching Tom try to paddle under Sir John Falls was definitely a highlight and it's lucky he didn't make it as we were all too tired to even raise a wistle to our lips.

Day 5
We awoke inside the freshly restored hut, broken and completely spent. Thanks to the long days on river we now found ourselves with a day to finally rest. Most of the morning was spent talking about Tom's Balls (a fuzzy but tasty snack) then some of Nicko's fantastic chili for lunch. After lunch we adventured to the Falls and met a kayaker who had just finished a solo decent of the Franklin and was once a TUWWRC member. Ben and I set about climbing across the river to explore the upper Falls and remains of Gould's landing. Coops started to climb across the small tree branch to follow us, snapping it off about 1 meter from the bank, leaving Ben and I stranded. Thankfully some gymnastic swinging saw us make it back across with dry feet. The afternoon was spent practicing our throwbagging with Justin being the only one to knock the paddle over in a helpful amount of time. The rest of us would have made good piners with the number of trees we successfully throwbagged. Not long after, the boat arrived and we were finally able to collect what we had boated, hiked, paddled, portaged and floated for. One 30 pack of the best beer Tasmania had to offer, Boags Green. By the morning only one can remained and was quickly claimed by myself as we hurried to pack before the final portage to secure a ride home. I finish this story now as we cross the Strahn Harbor.

A summer Denison trip. A truly unforgettable adventure.


One final thanks to all the people who contributed to making this trip come together and thanks to the reader for sticking with it (except for all the people who scrolled to the bottom to see how long this was). An attempt will be made to include some detailed maps and gpx files for the next wave of intrepid adventures.

~Joshua Resta

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