I feel a need to record, for posterity, a story that has been retold many times in a great oral tradition, but as most of those orators are now dead, it beholds me to transcribe it for others.
The incident occurred in the Jagungal Widlerness, In the Snowy Mountains of Australia, somewhat north of Mt Kosciuszko, in a rather wild and remote area of the Snowy Mountains National Park.
The exact time and date of the incident is lost, but it is generally agreed to be in the snowy winter months sometime in the mid seventies.
My family was part of an avid and dedicated group of cross country skiers, and we frequented this area on skiing trips, attracted to its natural beauty, its remoteness and to the added thrill of climbing to the top of Mt Jagungal.
In those days cross country skiing was a somewhat more complicated art form than it is today. The lightweight wooden skiis were coated with a tar substance on their lower surface, and to this tar was affixed a witches brew of exotic waxes. These waxes were carefully designed so that they had the exact right consistency so that when pressure was applied going uphill, the ice crystals would stick into the wax, whereas on transitioning to a downhill section, the ice crystals would magically disengage allowing the skis to run smoothly. Each skiing group had to have their local wizard who could stare meaningfully at the sky, consider the temperature of the snow and air, look at the terrain and the age of the snow, and then in a decisive move select the correct wax from a wonderfully coloured array that we carried with us. These waxes had to to be applied to each ski in turn, and in the correct order, so that a special layering occurred. If the weather changed, this process had to be repeated, and sometimes the layers of wax had to be removed with the carefull application of an LPG burner. The latter created a wonderful smell of burning tar and exotic waxes, which is so evocative to me, that imagining the smell transports me instantly to expanses of snow and majestic mountain plains.
Considerable emotional pressue was placed on this wax wizard, as if he (it almost always was a he) got it wrong, the skiis would stick like glue to the surface and instead of traversing slopes of white, we would be fixed like flies on flypaper to the surface. Much swearing and deliberation would ensue, whilst a new wax mixture was decided upon. In such instances, the wizard's authority could be challenged by a younger buck, who would subtley question the older and wiser man's authority. But in the end, there could only be one wax wizard in a group.
Our wax wizard was Reg Humphreys - an industrial chemist of some repute and a wiry energetic man with an infectious laugh. He was a decisive man when it came to wax, and, to that matter, to any other issue that impacted our group - he led from the front (often much too far in front, as my mother would remark).
My father, about whom this story is really about, was a very strong willed man who had opinions about everything. He was a professor of electronics and engineering, and on most occasions he was annoyingly correct in his opinions, but even he deferred to the superior wax viewpoints of Reg. My father was not an expert cross country skier, but he applied himself to the task, like he did to most things in life.
To explain the full import of the incident, it is necessary to describe a typical days outing - and the problem that the trout waders were meant to solve.
On a good weather day, our little group of 8-10 people would set out around 9am with skiis, daypacks, compass and maps - intent on exploring another piece of the wonderful wilderness. Our day packs were resplendent with sticks of wax, burners, a billy for tea, matches and assorted lightweight food and drinks.
Inevitably our trips would necessitate us crossing rivers or creeks. These were sometimes covered with snow, and could be quite dangerous. The water was a smidge above freezing, and the rocks slippery with deep dark pools embedded in the swirling waters. The main danger in the wilderness area is hypothermia - and this occurs quickly in the exposed plains if you happen to get wet. So crossing a river or creek required our fearless leader to identify a safe area to cross, and then each member of the party stripping off their shoes, socks, trousers and underwear and stowing these in a bundle on our head. Hopping in bare feet across the snow we would gingerly step through the flowing water, and climb up the snow bank on the otherside - whereupon we would dry ouselves with small towels, and regain our clothing and composure. Needless to say, when your foot entered the water, the water was so cold that it felt searing hot, and it was always with great relief that we emerged onto the other bank. The snow underneath felt warm in comparison.
Now my father disliked this process intensely. It went against many things in his personality. He never felt comfortable getting undressed in public, and the idea that we had to be subject to this ignomity just wasn't right. So he set about seeking a solution, and finally hit upon the idea of trout waders.
What if we all wore trout waders? Then we could leave our clothes on, don the trout waders, stroll across the stream, and emerge warm, dry and with no embarrasment. Better still, it sounded efficient - and being efficient was a very very big deal in my father's book of life.
The idea had been discussed at previous outings, and universally dismissed as crazy by everyone.
Reg especially considered it a very dumb idea.
My father, however, lived life according to the beat of his own drum, and was not to be dissuaded.
So on this particular trip, my father had brought his brand new pair of bright green trout waders.
We happened upon a swiftly flowing stream, and according to accepted custom, Reg selected a place to cross and everyone, except my father, stripped off and proceeded to cross the stream.
My father pulled the trout waders over his socked feet and ski trousers, tightened the braces, and proceeded towards the stream. He should, in retrospect, have seen some warning signs. The trout waders were clearly not designed for snow, and the soles of the integrated shoes were quite slippery on the ice. My father waddled forward, resembling a seal approaching the ocean from the rocks. He is a rather large man, over six feet tall in the old measurements, and weighing over 100 kgs - when you count the clothes, trout waders, pack and skis.
Meanwhile our group was assembled on the other side, watching with increasing hilarity at my father's progress.
Many comments, mostly unhelpful, were offered in encouragement.
My father started across the river.
It seemed to be going well, as he was definitely dry inside, and I could see the tell tale beginnings of a victory smile appearing on his lips.
However the river was running strongly, the icy water banking up against the trout waders, and it was clearly becoming difficult to maintain a foothold. He was getting close to us on the other side, when it happened.
One foot slipped on a rock, and in slow motion he toppled forward into the rushing stream. However he toppled upstream - so in an instant the trout waders filled with freezing water and swelled outwards like a gigantic sea anchor. Now he appeared like a giant whale, stranded in the stream.
It happened so quickly that we all burst into uncontrolled laughter, tears streaming down our cheeks. My father, now fearful of being swept away, let fly with a torrent of swearing as he demanded assistance.
We scrambled down the slope, and valiantly tried to drag him out of the river. However, he now weighed more like a tonne, with all the water insider the waders, and the waders themselves acting like a massive scoop ballooning outwards from his body. We dragged and pulled, trying hard to focus amongst all the laughter.
Finally Reg pulled his razor sharp pocket knife from his jacket, and to my father's consternation slashed the braces free. Like a massive spinnaker in the wind, the trout waders, freed from its restraining cords, was swept away down the river, never to be seen again. We dragged a now sodden and freezing cold man from the water's grasp, and laid him out on the snow - where everyone collapsed exhausted by the combined effort and the hilarious laughter.
But now we had a serious task - my father had to be stripped naked, spare clothes applied, a warm billy of tea made, and everyone contributed chocolate or other forms of sugar to assist in the joint task of preventing hypothermia.
Needless to say this failure and the subsequent ignomity of the events weighed heavily on my father, and he was rather quiet for the next few days.
And then, into the future, if at any time it was necessary for one of the party to bring my father to earth, all it took was a mention of the Great Trout Wader Incident, and tears of laughter would well in our eyes, and my father would accept that this was, after all, not one of his very best ideas.