We’d mentioned a while back on Facebook that we’re in the early stages of hatching a plan to expand the Hokkaido Wilds online route guides to Hokkaido rivers and lakes. The plan is to essentially mount a three-year ‘expedition’ of weekend exploring, with the aim of producing English route guides (online at Hokkaido Wilds) for about 50 established river and lake canoe touring routes. We’re yet to acquire a boat though…
But first things first! Haidee and I have done a few canoe day-trips, and a few overnighters on the water, but with this ambitious plan ahead of us, we decided to invest in some lessons – not just paddling, but self-rescue and safety also. A natural choice close to Sapporo for us was Canoa Guide House at Lake Shikotsu. As a Canadian canoe specialist operation, we were confident they’d be able to get us up to speed.
At 14,000 yen each for the 9:30am-3:30pm day-long beginner course, this was no small investment. We were hoping it was going to be worth it.
We arrived at the Canoa Guide House HQ about 20 minutes early, and were immediately sat down at a table on the outside terrace, with hot coffees placed in front of us. Despite only meeting him for the first time that morning, chatting with Naoki was as if we were chatting with an old friend. I’d hazard a guess at his age to be early 30’s. He was interested to hear our ideas, and effortlessly gave us advice on types of canoes and crafts.
Coffees downed and suited up in our PFDs, we headed down to the mouth of the Chitose River. It was a glorious mid-May morning. Once again we were taken aback at the amazing clarity of Lake Shikotsu. It is Japan’s clearest lake, after all.
“This time of year, when the water is still very cold, the water is the clearest,” explained Naoki. “That said, the water temperature is around 6℃ right now, and won’t get much over 14℃ even in mid-summer,” he said.
We were happy to hear that our self-rescue training in the afternoon would most certainly involve drysuits.
Naoki started the day off with the basics of paddles and paddling. “I’m a bit of a paddle connoisseur,” he confessed. He’s one of the few outfits in Japan that stock Grey Owl paddles from Canada (see the Canoa online shop here), and he had a few for us to try out. “This one is light and great for easy paddling,” he said, pointing to a long, narrow paddle. “It’s not great when you’ve got a headwind or have to paddle hard though. In that case, this one’s better,” he said as he hoisted up a wider-bladed paddle. He had us bundle up a number of paddles into the canoe, so that we could try paddling with different shapes and sizes and understand the advantages each offered.
With the on-land theory out of the way, we set off under the iconic (relocated) railway bridge, and out into an absolutely gorgeous Lake Shikotsu.
All this made the 3-hour morning session go very fast. Before we knew it, it was lunch time. We headed back to the village, and Haidee and I sat down on the grass to munch down on the bread we’d bought in advance for lunch.
The afternoon session started with drysuits on from the outset. I’d worn waterproof socks in the morning, as had Haidee, but I decided that I’d go with bare feet for the afternoon. I’d end up regretting this…
Before getting into the self-rescue antics, we reviewed the paddling strokes we’d worked on in the morning.
And then Naoki demonstrated what happens when one capsizes one’s canoe. “As you can see,” he said calmly, as his canoe rolled over, and he bobbed on the frigid water’s surface, “it is incredibly difficult to right a capsized canoe on your own.”
He showed how he connected his throw-rope to the canoe, and swam for shore, only pulling the canoe into shore once he was on land. Afterwards, he showed us team rescue techniques including the canoe-over-canoe technique.
Then it was our turn. Haidee and I slowly leaned over in tandem, and our canoe happily capsized into the 6℃ water. I had the throw-rope on, so I quickly attached it to the bow loop and swam to shore. In a matter of seconds, my feet, exposed to the frigid water, were aching. It was really quite eye-opening. Less than five minutes would be all it would take for the lake to suck the life out of you, if not wearing a wetsuit or drysuit. I had a new-found respect for this lake. Once we had the canoe righted and drained, we got back on the river and it was Haidee’s turn with the throw rope. We capsized the boat, and Haidee deftly swam ashore with her rope attached.
“You’re a very good swimmer!” exclaimed Naoki. Haidee’s years of competitive swimming through high school were not lost on him.
We headed back to land for a debriefing before one last 30 minute blat on the river. We paddled as far as it was possible – to the low dam about 700m downstream. We spotted at least three Mandarin ducks along the way. This area is teeming with bird life.
Back at the Canoa Guide House HQ, we had a final debriefing. All in all, it was a really excellent full day on the water. Naoki had an effortless, easy way of teaching. He was always present but not overbearing. His passion for all things canoeing was very apparent.
We’re already booked in for the Intermediate Course – we’ll be joining Naoki again next week on a lower portion of the Chitose River, for our first lesson with moving water. “You’ll probably get wet, but that’ll be all part of the experience. Most canoeing I do in Hokkaido is with a drysuit, so you’ll get used to that soon enough too,” beamed Naoki.
We look forward to the next challenge.