Piners punts

A decade ago we traveled in Australia as part of a sabbatical. Our primary field of study was an exploration of thin spaces - places where God’s presence is especially evident. We also were interested in communities that had a similar size and sense of isolation as Rapid City. We began that sabbatical by visiting sites sacred to the Lakota in our own community. We then traveled in British Columbia visiting sacred sites as well as looking at communities in the 50,000 to 70,000 size range that were physically distant from other communities.

One of the memorable parts of that sabbatical was our time in Tasmania. Our primary objective was a Uniting Church in Australia congregation in Launceston. Launceston is a bit bigger than Rapid City, but it shares a similar sense of isolation. It is about 200 miles from Tasmania’s other and more famous city, Hobart. Being an island state means that the rest of Australia seems a bit far away for all of the residents of Tasmania.

While on the Island we visited Hobart and Port Arthur and enjoyed driving on two different routes through the state. Port Arthur is a former prison colony. It was a place to which prisoners were exported from England for crimes as small as stealing food or candles and as vicious as pre-meditated murder. The prisoners literally built the colony and lived in near isolation, many for the remainder of their lives. It was also the site of some of the early experiments with penitentiary style prison, based on the belief that if people were left alone to contemplate the severity of their crimes they would become penitent. There was a building devoted to silent isolation of inmates, who often suffered severe mental illness because of their total separation from any form of community. Port Arthur is also the site of a 1998 killing spree. Thirty-five people were murdered before the shooter was captured. The event led to a revision of Australian gun regulations and remains the most violent mass killing in recent Australian history. Port Arthur is now a World Heritage site and one of the island’s most popular tourist attractions.

Hobart was very different from the other places we visited in Tasmania. I was most struck by its heritage of wooden boats. There were many excellent examples to be seen as we walked around the harbor and got a feel for the area. Tasmania is also famous for its wool production and there were many shops where woolen clothing could be purchased, but I was well entertained by looking at and thinking about boats and boat construction.

We were also able to visit a sanctuary for the endangered Tasmanian devils. These amazing and frightening animals are different from any other type of animal I’ve ever experienced. They seem to show little or no care for their own species, attacking each other as viciously as they attack any other animals.

Tasmania is a gorgeous place. It receives a large amount of precipitation that falls primarily in the forms of snow and rain. Some of the mountain streams that flow to the river rise by as much as seventeen or eighteen feet when at flood stage. In the rural and remote areas of the island cutting timber was one of the ways of earning a living. The giant Huron pines grow to great heights and are straight grained and very rot resistant. They make great timbers for boats and spars for masts of the tall ships. Over cutting has resulted in the protection of the trees and they are no longer cut except on very rare occasions under special circumstances.

When the harvesting of the timbers was at its height, small groups of loggers would take tiny row boats, called Piners’ Punts up the rivers, sometimes portaging hundreds of times to get around falls and cascades. They would cut trees and mark logs and when the rivers flooded, float them down to the sea where they would be caught, rafted and towed to the saw mills. Piners weren’t paid until their timbers reached the saw mill. It was a rugged and isolated life.

The boats they rowed evolved from whaleboats that were used to explore the rivers and streams of the remote areas. The whaleboats, however, lacked sufficient rocker to maneuver in the while rushing water of the rivers and soon a different kind of boat was designed to fit the needs of the Piners. One of the stories of the boats is that in the 1890s the Colonial government of Tasmania paid meter boat builder Artie Doherty to build seven identical punts and place them at the mouths of seven of the region’s rivers “for the succour of shipwrecked crews.” There is no record of the boats ever being used by shipwrecked crews, but there are many tails of their use for the rescuee of seriously injured loggers working in the remote areas. The boats, equipped with two sets of 10’ long oars could be rowed in the coastal waters as well as the rivers and streams and there are tales of rugged pines rowing nonstop for 12 to 18 hours and covering tremendous distances.

This incredible industry and specially adapted boat design grew out of a population that was forced to make do with local resources. Isolated from the rest of the world, they adapted the technologies they had received from Europe to their local needs and developed and refined them into highly specialized watercraft. Most of the pines and boatbuilders had little formal education, and gained their skills through trial and error and their own imaginations and ingenuity.

The world has changed. We no longer live in complete isolation. The Internet and social media keep us connected with those who are far away. But traveling far from home still requires a spirit of adventure and a bit of ingenuity as one uses the skills and knowledge of the former place and adapts it for use in the new home. Stories of others’ successes can be inspirational to travelers in our contemporary world.

Now more than a decade since our visit, I continue to be inspired by the stories of the Piners and their boats.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!