The morning at our makeshift Nakasato Weir campsite broke subdued and misty. Dan and El’s battle scars from the previous day were developing some impressive colors. They’d been thrown in the deep end, hard.
Following breakfast, the first order of business was getting the canoes and gear down the steep bank beyond the weir. If the weir designers had made concessions for river travelers, they certainly weren’t clear to us. At least there was enough vegetation to slide the canoes over down to the river.
Once the canoes were in the river though, we were on our way. Overall, Dan and El seemed to be getting more confident in their paddling. “We’re definitely paddling straighter today than yesterday,” mentioned El.
This first couple of kilometers beyond Nakasato Weir was quite pleasant, shrouded in forest, punctuated by some more high sandstone cliffs. One in particular is marked in guidebooks we have as consisting mostly of ancient sea shells.
While last night’s Nakasato Weir seemed to come out of nowhere – I’d not marked it on my GPS route – we were thoroughly expecting the larger Sumiyoshi Weir 5km downstream. Soon enough we found ourselves paddling a lake, inching closer and closer to the roaring monstrosity. Guidebooks I’d read said there was a clear concrete ramp right up at the far end, close to the weir. But how close? Despite knowing that a weir like this, in conditions like this, is not going to ‘suck’ us over it, they still give me the hebie-gebies. We found a potential take-out point about 100m from the weir, so Dan and El stopped there while Haidee and I scouted further up. Sure enough, there was an awkward, steep and slippery concrete ramp about 20m from the weir, so we called Dan and El down to us, hauled the gear and canoes up, and started the short 100m portage.
On the other side of the weir, we were able to put the canoes back in via a much more convenient ‘ramp’ made of gabion blocks. Water levels were still relatively low, so we opted to line the canoes all the way from here to about 200m downstream beyond Sumiyoshi Bridge. In just a touch more water, this gorgeous bed-rock section of river with a good drop just beyond the bridge, would be excellent fun.
About 1km beyond Sumiyoshi Weir we arrived at a broken weir marked in the old guidebooks. We opted to pull up and scout this. There wasn’t a huge amount of flow, but water was confusingly flowing around and under large slabs of concrete. We wanted to be sure of what we were dealing with. In the end, Haidee and I paddled through the narrow gap, just missing the large chunk of concrete on the way through. Dan and El took the safer option and decided to line their canoe through it.
Beyond the broken weir, things were relatively smooth sailing. With each small tributary river flowing into the river, we rejoiced a little, convinced that our lining days were over. Such feelings were usually short lived, however, with even some of the more interesting looking almost-Class II rapids not at all runnable due to low water. Next time we’ll be coming back in spring!
We got to Imakane Town at around noon. This was our original planned campspot for the night before, but with water levels as they were, it would have been a huge day to get all the way here yesterday. Already, Dan and El had been talking about calling it a day here in Imakane Town. They’d been cycling almost non-stop around Hokkaido in the preceding weeks, and this trip down the Shiribeshi-Toshibetsu River was not quite the relaxing float down a river they’d been expecting. They were keen for a well-earned early afternoon lounge-around.
It was a very hot day, but mercifully we managed to find a gorgeous wild camping spot right next to the river, complete with a nice stand of tall shrubs that formed a shady escape. While Dan and El wandered over to the nearby convenience store, Haidee and I cooked up some pasta for lunch.
With almost 20km still to paddle to the sea, and a growing headwind breeze, Haidee and I pushed on after lunch, hoping that the river would finally allow some line-free paddling. Dan and El wisely stayed behind and set up camp at the Imakane campspot – we’d join up with them again at the end of the day with the car (and their bikes which were stowed in the car).
In the end, it was as if Imakane Town was some sort of invisible gate into a completely different river. There was one set of shallow swifts that we had to line down, and one large rocky weir-like dam that we were also able to line down, but beyond that, we were paddling the whole way.
The birdlife on this lower section of the river was absolutely stunning.
Most of the massive flocks of Japanese stalks and shags were quite timid, launching off into the air as soon as they saw us come around a bend in the river. But it really was some of the most concentrated birdlife we’d ever seen in Hokkaido.
Of course, this 20km section of the Shiribeshi-Toshibetsu River has been tortured to the nth degree, with dramatic straightening efforts over the years. There were never any horribly straight sections, but take a look at the second page of this PDF to see how much this poor river has been messed with. With large bushy trees on both sides of the river, we felt like we were paddling through a vast forest. In reality, however, getting close to the sides of the river revealed concrete blocks lining the river to contain it.
It appears that work continues to squeeze this pristine river into the whims of human needs, but we’d encourage paddlers to make the effort to paddle all the way to the mouth of the river. Sure, the river is a bit tortured down this end, but the birdlife is great, and the river mouth area is really beautiful.
For Haidee and I, this was our first overnight river trip ever. It was a pretty special feeling to arrive at the terminus of a river and pull up on sand. We spent at least 30 minutes soaking in the views before finally paddling across the lagoon to our take-out spot.
We got our gear and canoe up to the car, packed up, and headed back to Imakane Town to rendezvous with Dan and El. They were in good spirits, clearly having appreciated a leisurely afternoon. We reunited them with their bikes, bid our farewells, and started our journey by car back to Sapporo. It was early evening on a Sunday, so we’d originally hoped to get back to Sapporo that evening – we had work on Monday morning. But it was clear that we’d end up with a very late night. Instead of going the whole way that night, we opted to camp at the Pirika Campground, wake up at 4am, and make the drive in the morning. In the end, we were back at work, direct from the adventure, at 8am on Monday. An excellent weekend out of adventuring with new friends.