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The Great Trout Hatchery Caper - Scotty saves the day

The modern Trout Hatcheries at Pemberton. The original timber hatchery, as featured in this story, is at the rear. Both are adjacent to towering karri forest (Photo by Joanne Drake)

It must have been about 1970 or 1971. Anyway, it was during the time I was the DFO, or forester-in-charge of the Forests Department’s Pemberton district in the heart of the karri country. It was probably the most varied, interesting and challenging job I ever had. Knotty problems frequently arose, and as it was departmental policy that (as far as possible) the DFO had to look after himself and his affairs by himself, the knotty problems would mostly end up on my desk. I was sitting at this very desk one day when just such a situation arose. There was a tap at the door and Michela put her head around it. “Excuse me, Mr Underwood” she said, “Ralph Kelly is here to see you”. Ralph Kelly! I smartened myself up. Ralph was Pemberton royalty, known as “King Ralph” in some quarters and as “Mr. Pemberton” in others. He ran the local farm supplies business with a monopoly on irrigation equipment, had a farm at West Pemberton with a superb Golden Queen peach orchard and a handsome spud licence. He was the local Shire Councillor and was Chairman or President of nearly every organisation on the Pemberton side of the black stump. Ralph also ran the local caravan park and swimming pool and was in charge of the district’s national parks. His supreme self-confidence was bolstered by the fact that he was a self-made man, having started his working life as a fireman on a State Sawmills locomotive. He did wonderful service to the Pemberton community in all sorts of different ways, and he was our champion when it came to dealing with politicians, the bureaucracy or local government. But is has to be said that he was something of an autocrat. Ralph’s idea of a committee was a group of people who did what Ralph thought should be done, and did it smartly. Ralph and I did not always see eye to eye – given our respective positions there were inevitable clashes of interests, responsibilities and egos. But I held him in great respect. He was indeed Mr Pemberton and always had the best interests of the town and community at heart. I cooperated wherever possible, especially over the management of the local national parks. In those days, before the creation of the WA National Parks Authority, about 2000 hectares of prime karri forest around Pemberton was designated “national park” and these were vested in (by which is meant, they were the responsibility of) a small local committee of Pemberton residents. This was run by Ralph. However, thanks to an arrangement going back decades, most of the work in the forest, especially bushfire control and maintenance of roads and recreation sites, was managed by the local Forests Department. This was run by me. Mostly things went smoothly, but we had some notable stoushes, the most bitter being over the widening of Rainbow Trail, a tourist drive constructed on an old logging railway formation (I have told this story elsewhere in these chronicles). A sort-of compromise was arrived at, but I don’t think Ralph ever fully forgave me. Nevertheless, we worked well together on most occasions, To return to my present story. Ralph strode into my office and sat down. After the usual brusque preliminaries, taking no more than three seconds (Ralph was a straight-to-the-point man), he stated that he had a problem and wanted me to fix it. I forgot to mention earlier that another of Ralph’s roles was Chairman of Western Australia’s Trout Acclimatisation Society, which was headquartered in Pemberton, indeed in Ralph’s office. He was also Manager of the local trout hatchery and for the program of stocking-up karri forest streams with trout. The hatchery was located on the banks of the Lefroy Brook on the edge of town and was a substantial set-up, with permanent staff, ponds, oxygenation equipment and other apparatus associated with propagating and raising trout). At any one time the ponds were heaving with thousands of Brown and Rainbow trout of various ages and were more often than not they were surrounded by tourists and schoolchildren. It was a popular tourist attraction and educational facility. What’s more, the hatchery was the first phase in a major recreational sport in the karri country. The fingerlings released by Ralph Kelly and his staff into the local waterways flourished and grew into very nice fish. Anglers came from all over the country to fish the streams around Pemberton.

Ralph Kelly with a bag of trout fingerlings for release into karri forest streams (photo courtesy of Robert Kelly)

Trout fishing in the Lefroy Brook, near Pemberton (photo from Wikipedia)

Ralph’s problem was that the hatchery adjoined a stand of tall karri forest, part of the national park that ran around the hill overlooking the town. In 1970, most of the forest was 50-year-old regrowth, regeneration following the earliest days of operations of the Pemberton sawmill. But intermixed with the younger trees were a few rough old veterans, remnants of the original virgin forest. One of these, an enormous and ragged karri tree, leaned ominously downhill, looming over the trout hatchery. “The thing is going to come down any day Roger, and hundreds of people will be decimated!” said Ralph dramatically. “You have to do something!” Ralph and I drove down immediately, and we inspected the tree. It was a big old karri, all right. Probably two or three hundred years old, maybe 50 metres tall, heavily forked about two-thirds of the way up, slightly hollow-butted. It had a lean of about 15 degrees downhill. I did a simple triangulation and compared the height of the tree to the horizontal distance to the trout hatchery. This disclosed without doubt that if the tree was uprooted by a storm or burnt out by a fire and fell downhill, it would demolish the hatchery, and all men, women, children and fish within it. And now I knew about the tree, and the risk it posed, I also knew I would be held responsible if it did fall over and “decimate hundreds of people” and I had done nothing to prevent this occuring. The buck had stopped, and it had stopped on my desk. If it had been thirty years before, 1940 instead of 1970, a ready solution would have presented itself. I would simply have called up one of those intrepid forest workmen like Dick Sproge or George Reynolds, the daredevils who used to peg their way up giant karri trees and cut off the tops with an axe. I had seen photographs of them at work constructing the great fire lookout trees, standing in the swaying tree crown 70 metres from the ground and hewing off the topmost branches. Indeed, I had many times climbed to the top of lookout trees Sproge and Reynolds had pegged and pruned. If it was 1941 instead of 1971, I could have asked them to climb the tree and chop off the top ten metres or so, which would have fallen harmlessly to the ground below, removing all potential threat to the hatchery, and they would have enjoyed doing so. But Dick and George had both long ago retired, in fact were no longer even on this earth. They had no successors.

Dick Sproge, axing the top off a karri tree, back in the day

Furthermore, there was no way the tree could be felled by conventional means without demolishing the trout hatchery. The world’s most skilful tree faller could not make a big, heavy, leaning tree fall uphill. Every bushman knows that nearly all trees fall downhill, whether caused to do so by human hand or Mother Nature. And if the tree actually leans downhill, it is an absolute certainty. So it came home to me that Ralph had set me both a moral and a technical challenge. The moral question was easily resolved: doing nothing was not an option. But what to do, and how to do it? I was discussing this with my staff of field foresters in the office the next morning when one of them, Ian Scott (known to us all as Scotty), said “I’ll have a look at it.” I could see that he had an idea. I was lucky to have Scotty as one of my forest rangers. I had known him for some time, as he had been one of the group of cadets I had taken through their forestry training back in the early 1960s. After a few years share-farming in the wheatbelt, Scotty returned to forestry and was appointed to the field staff at Pemberton. Here he became one of my best treemarkers and hardest working officers - a good man at an aerial burn or a bushfire and respected by all. Scotty was also a fanatical and expert fisherman, and his every spare moment was spent casting with a heavy rod into the surf on the south coast, from which he would haul giant salmon.

Scotty when I first knew him in 1963, a trainee forest officer (Photo by John Evans)

Returning to 1971. “I’ve got it worked out”, Scotty told me later that day. He would 'bait' his surf-casting fishing rod with a spark plug, cast it through the tree’s forks about sixty feet up, and then use the fishing line to pull up successively stronger ropes and eventually a long wire rope. The wire rope would be harnessed to a powerful bulldozer uphill of the tree. Once the bulldozer took the strain, a faller would attack the base of the tree with a chainsaw, cutting a scarf on the uphill side. At a point when the scarf was deep enough, a signal would be sent to the dozer driver who would then pull strongly uphill, bringing the tree down safely. It would be a new twist to an old trick. Nevertheless, listening to Scotty describe his scheme, I blanched. I could see about five points at which something could go badly wrong, including one where Scotty (who had nominated himself as the chainsaw man) ended up pinned beneath the fallen tree. Then we talked to Colin ‘Drafty’ Hunter, who was the driver of the forestry D6 bulldozer. I asked him what he thought. He said he thought it would be a “piece of cake”. Drafty was a tough and fearless bulldozer driver, the hero of many bushfires, but you would never describe him as over-imaginative. Eventually, against my better judgement, and not being able to come up with anything better, I gave them the go-ahead.

Colin 'Drafty' Hunter with the Pemberton D6 bulldozer

As it turned out, the first part was the hardest. Casting a surf-rod in the midst of heavy forest and doing so with pin-point accuracy at a target sixty feet up, proved difficult. But after numerous frustrations, line tangles, snags and many casts, the sparkplug sailed through the tree forks and, taking the fishing line with it, returned to earth. The work with the ropes was soon done and eventually we had a high point on the tree firmly attached to Drafty’s bulldozer by a thick wire hawser. At this point, everybody looked at me. I rechecked my calculations. I had already arranged for the trout hatchery and car park to be evacuated. But what if the thing went too well? Although the D6 had a heavy steel safety canopy, I didn’t want Drafty pulling the tree down on himself. So I rechecked my calculations on the uphill slope, and again made sure he was far enough away for this not to happen. Drafty also had the good sense to pull in reverse rather than a forward gear, so that he had the raised blade and tree arm in front of him as extra protection and could see what was going on. I noticed, however, that he adjusted his yellow safety helmet to ensure it was securely in place before kick-off. I gave the thumbs-up. Drafty cautiously backed his bulldozer up the slope and took the strain, giving the old tree a bit of a shake to bring down any loose wood in the crown. Scotty went in and did his thing with the chainsaw. Then he retreated to safety and signalled to the bulldozer. Off it chugged, and with n’ere a groan or a whimper, the great tree came down. It did not fall exactly uphill but sideways, along the contour, and it seemed to fall almost softly, as if it was glad the hullabaloo was all over. Scotty, Drafty and I walked (or rather clambered) around and inspected the outcome. The operation had not gone precisely to plan, we agreed, but the objective had been achieved – the trout hatchery was safe, and we were all alive and kicking. I grinned at Scotty, and he grinned back. We packed up the gear and went home. Ralph Kelly, of course, took all this for granted. I don’t recall a single word of thanks or appreciation. But that didn’t matter. We were pleased with ourselves for having come up with a practical solution to a tricky problem and having carried out a dangerous operation without incident. Preventative medicine had been administered; both moral and technical challenge overcome. Best of all, we had lived up to expectations – the forestry had delivered, yet again. I sometimes think back to that morning’s work and wonder how today’s Occupational Health and Safety officers or park rangers would regard it. Their approach, I suspect, would probably be to close and relocate the trout hatchery at a cost of millions, leaving the tree to come down at a time of Mother Nature’s choosing. Certainly, the operation would be considered far too hazardous to be approved ... and for all I know there is probably a regulation these days against using a surf-casting fishing rod in a national park. But it was the way of the world. In those days when we had a problem we just got on with things and tried to solve it with a minimum of fuss. On this occasion we not only got on with it, we got away with it. Actually, it’s probably best the authorities don’t know about it, even today. Keep this story to yourself. I would not want Scotty (or me) to be charged retrospectively with damaging a tree in a national park and then crucified on the front page of The West Australian newspaper. Scotty is long retired these days, and keeps a low profile. He smiles modestly when I mention the time he put a new twist on an old trick, and saved the day.

Scotty, complete with modest smile (Photo courtesy of Annette Scott)

As for dear old Drafty, a man of simplicity, courage, unfailing optimism and as good a yarn-spinner as I have ever met, he has long gone to that great bulldozer driver’s depot in the sky. But I have no doubt he is still telling the boys up there about the time he pulled over a giant karri tree, saving the lives of hundreds, and the story will lose nothing at every re-telling.

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Mar 05

Enjoyed this Roger.

And brought back visual memories of the area around the old hatchery. Think we used to walk a track between the hatchery and Pemby pool as kids.


Mar 27, 2023

I love the imagination and ingenuity in the solution


Mar 27, 2023

Great story Roger 🙂

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