We woke to a beautiful sunny morning. We’d all slept relatively well despite discovering we’d pitched our tents about 30m from the rotting carcass of a dead fox. The wind only occasionally wafted the putrid smell of the poor creature our way. When breakfast time came around though, the breeze was mercifully blowing the opposite direction. In typical cycle-tourist fashion, we well and truly made ourselves at home, spreading our gear out.
After a leisurely breakfast surrounded by concrete, it was time to pack up and get on the water. I was still apprehensive about how much water would be in the river just below the dam. A couple of guidebooks recommended foregoing the 5km of river below the dam in anything but serious dam outflow levels. But they didn’t give any concrete numbers, and another guidebook didn’t mention anything about low water levels. Keen to experience the full length of the river from dam to sea, we made the call to just keep an adventurous mindset and go for it. How bad could it be?
Mercifully, the first 300m or so of river just below the dam had a 1m-deep channel that snaked its way to beyond the bridge. Beyond this, however, we got our first taste of what we’d experience for the next five hours – un-paddleable rocky slopes punctuated by short pool-like sections. Trusting in the bullet-proofness of the NovaCraft TuffStuff material, we opted to ‘line’ the canoes over barely-deep enough rocky cascades fully laden. If we’d opted to remove gear every time we came to a rocky section, we’d most certainly spent the better part of seven hours rather than five.
Much of the first 1km or so was shallow water running over bedrock. This was actually really stunning scenery, and we were all quite enjoying it all. Then came the larger, stonier drops. The first of which we opted to carefully unload the canoes and portage the 20m or so down to the next pool.
To say this was not canoe friendly would be an understatement. The dam was letting out a meager 6.29m³/s of water (see dam outflow 全放流量 here), which was clearly not nearly enough. In hindsight now, it is highly unlikely I’d even consider this 5km section below the dam unless the dam was letting out at least twice that. For the next four hours, we hauled and dragged the canoes, with some paddling here and there, to eventual euphoric joy when we finally joined up with the main hydro outlet just downstream from the Hanaishi Bridge.
The problem (apart from the lack of water) is that this section is, actually, the most untouched and beautiful sections of the entire river. The water was pristine. There were fish everywhere. And part way down the river, we met a friendly gold-panner, who cheerfully showed us his haul for the day. “I did this for two years and collected enough gold to pay for a 660cc truck,” he beamed. “But when I think of all the money I paid for transport and food for these trips to the river, I probably haven’t made much at all!”
The relief was palpable once we finally made it to the hydro outlet. From here, the water level more than doubled, and we were well and truly canoeing down the Shiribeshi-Toshibetsu River. The increase in water did, however, introduce fresh challenges. After the mild swift just beyond the hydro outlet, Dan and El seemed flustered. “We weren’t expecting this much whitewater,” El exclaimed.
To a relatively experienced moving water canoeist, this was hardly anything at all. However, despite Dan’s experience paddling almost two weeks down the Yukon, and El’s experience as a kayaker, the complexities of maneuvering and keeping straigh a 16-foot (4.85m) open canoe was clearly a new, challenging proposition.
At the first opportunity, we stopped at a slower section of the river to first of all get Dan’s stern ruddering under control. As a paddling team, Dan and El were being thrown in the deep end – just as well the river itself wasn’t too deep.
After a few more swifts, and another paddling tips session (including the draw stroke for El in the front) they seemed to be getting the hang of things. Along the way, the river was showing off with gorgeous high cliffs. It also continued to give us some grief though, with some rocky swifts too shallow to paddle. Dan and El, who didn’t have decent water shoes, were struggling in their flipflops with the lining. On one occasion, both canoes came screeching to a halt on a shallow ledge. Haidee and I were quick enough to get out and keep the canoe straight, but Dan and El’s canoe was pushed around horizontal to the flow, coming very close to capsizing.
It was hardly a care-free walk in the park.
Then came the strainer incident. It was a classic cross-river swift with a bunch of low-lying branches at the bottom of it, on the outside of the river. Haidee and I went first, and executed a classic across-the-grain move, keeping our momentum up to avoid being pushed too far down the swift into the branches. As soon as we’d got into the eddy on the inside of the river, we looked back to see where Dan and El were, as it was clearly going to be a challenge. They were already in the flow, however, with their canoe pointed straight down the swift. There was no way they’d be able to cut across and away from the branches.
Sure enough, they headed straight for the first 10cm thick clothesline, turning their canoe broadside to it at the last minute. The next few moments felt like life in slow motion as they both lurched upstream, their canoe quickly capsizing. El heroically held onto the canoe as it washed under another couple of low branches, but let go at our insistence. She’d later tell us she was convinced the canoe and all their belongings were gone for good.
Haidee and I were already in rescue mode. El had managed to swim to our side of the river, while Dan had clambered onto a small ledge on the other side of the river. Haidee and I jumped in and managed to drag out their canoe and all their panniers. The only thing lost in the end was a pair of socks and a water bottle.
Once I’d retrieved the gear, Dan was still huddled in good spirits on the other side of the river, clutching one heavy pannier of gear. I threw him my rescue line, and clutching it with me on the other end, he executed a perfect arc around to our side of the river.
They were both shaken. Somehow, they’d both sustained some bruises and scrapes to their heads during the ordeal. In the days following, El in particular would develop a shiner of a black eye. We were counting our lucky stars that the strainer was not more substantial than it was. “I can’t believe how fast you got all our gear out,” exclaimed El. We all agreed we’d be more cautious with possible strainer hazards as we continued.
After a long break, we set off again, with a much larger measure of trepidation than before.
This feeling of unease continued as we rounded a corner and entered what was clearly a reservoir of some sort. During my planning, I’d not marked any weirs in the vicinity on my GPS route, so this had taken me by surprise. We ventured forward warily, a little put out at the prospect of a portage we’d not been expecting.
Eventually, we came upon the weir that had created the lake we were now paddling on. I’d learn later that the Nakasato Weir is not raised for most of the year. We’d happened upon it raised, however. The reason I’d not noticed it during my Google Earth scouting of the route was because the satellite imagery shows the weir dropped.
The portage up and around the weir was typical Hokkaido bush-bashing inconvenience. Clearly whoever designed the weir didn’t expect fully loaded canoes to be passing by. We chose a spot about 100m from the weir to drag the canoes up a steep bank. The hefty steel square-section fence sections at the top of the bank seemed moveable, and we were able to drop one to the ground to get the canoes across.
At this point, we were all feeling rather frazzled. It has been a long day on the water. We decided that this was a good spot to bunk down for the night, and make the rest of the way tomorrow. Just above the weir was a fine gravel parking area, and a raise platform that made for a great picnic table. Dan and El nursed their wounds from the day, and we all looked forward to a good night’s rest and a reset of spirits for the rest of the way the following day.