Our paddling instructor Naoki was in disaster prevention mode, effortlessly maneuvering his canoe perpendicular to the river’s flow, as Haidee and I drifted towards the large jumble of low fallen trees at the bend in the river. He did an admirable job at preventing us heading wide-ways into this great natural human-strainer, blocking us with his canoe. With his help, we paddled frantically away to the relative shelter of the eddy on the inside of the curve.
He’d warned us well in advance that we needed to keep well to the inside of this curve. Afterwards, we pulled into a sheltered spot and Naoki gave us a well-needed debriefing of what had happened.
“The main flow of the river will always push you towards the outside of the curve, where it will eventually hit the opposite bank,” he explained, using a twig to represent our canoe. “The inside of the curve, however, is an eddy. The problem is that you’re on a big long freighter, that is, your canoe, so you need to work with the flow to help you keep on the inside of the curve.”
He explained that counter to one’s intuition, pointing the canoe towards the curve’s outer bank will actually help the water push the canoe towards the inner bank.
I’d already spent most of the morning feeling completely out of my depth. Way before we started on the afternoon’s paddle down the river, we’d spent at least two hours doing drills on a sheltered, easy flow, near the Chitose City Sport Center, around here. Ferry-glides, and figures of eight across the flow were the main things we were drilled on. With two of us in the canoe, it was a good opportunity to make sure we were communicating well too.
Eventually Naoki deemed us proficient enough to take us down the river. We started a little downstream from the salmon hatchery in Chitose City (we started around here on Google Maps). Once again, before we set off down the river, Naoki had us do drills again, this time on a slightly stronger, wider flow. Looking at it now, having done through the training, I wonder why I had been so nervous…
After a leisurely lunch, we got back on the river, and started down the river, back towards the Chitose City Gymnasium. This would be a distance of about 8km on the river. Finally, we were doing something we’d been talking about doing for the past 8 years or so, ever since we first cycled along the Chitose to Lake Shikotsu cycling road. And it was every bit as beautiful as we’d imagined – gorgeous clear water, yamasemi crested kingfishers, and beautiful late-spring greenery.
It was by no means an easy paddle for beginners in a canoe, however. There were two sharp bends in the river, both with jumbled downed trees on the outside of the bend. The river’s flow wasn’t super strong, but enough to make trouble if a paddler was unfortunate enough to get tangled in the thick branches sticking out of the water. Hence our instructor’s quick reflexes – as described above – as we started to drift towards one particularly large clump of trees in the water.
Around one-third of the way down the route for today, there was a large weir (around here). Our instructor pulled us over to the side of the river and talked some theory about weir hydraulics. On this particular weir, there is a wide, not too steep fish ladder on the left side. “The general advice regarding man-made obstructions in a river is just not to enter them,” Naoki explained. “It is, as a rule, better to portage around them.”
He went on to describe this particular fish ladder, and advised that for this one in particular, it would be a good opportunity to get a feel for side-to-side currents in a rapid. After his explanation, Naoki went first, and of course made it look very easy.
Our turn was next, and I was nervous. Haidee seemed to be in her element though, with a smile throughout.
It was quite amazing what just a couple of hours on moving water did for our paddling skills. We were on nothing much more than Class 1 moving water, but I felt like my movements were becoming more automatic. Without thinking too much, I was able to paddle with intent, knowing that my body would put the paddle in the right place. The paddle was becoming a familiar tool. Something I was able to use use with a more full understanding of how I could use it to move the boat about.
Almost back at the Chitose City Sport Center, we would cross a small drop in the river that Haidee and I had seen countless times previously (location here). I’d always thought it would be a fun spot to play, and it didn’t disappoint. It felt like not much at all after what we’d done so far, but it again gave us the opportunity to practice ferry gliding and hard turns, as well as attempt some surfing.
Of all the warnings that Naoki gave us today, the more curious one was to “watch out for fish-hooks”.
“There are many fishermen on this river,” Naoki explained. “Their fish lures often get caught in the trees on the opposite side of the river, if they cast too far. That means there are often fish lures hanging from trees, ready to catch you!”
Sure enough, but the time we’d finished canoeing this section of the river, we’d collected almost 10 lures, many hanging nonchalantly from trees, right at head-height for canoeists.
This small nuisance notwithstanding, Haidee and I had a fantastic time learning from Naoki. Our confidence has grown in leaps and bounds. After we said our thanks and goodbyes, Haidee and I wondered “what’s next?”
Many things are next, but first on the agenda is to get a boat – something that is shaping up quite nicely as we speak…more on that soon.
River route guide for Chitose River is also, COMING SOON!
Today’s lesson finished at 4pm, and from there, we got on our bikes and cycled 25km to Morappu Campground on Lake Shikotsu, to camp for the night. We met our friends Simon and Alex there, and enjoyed the last wisps of the day, followed by a beautiful morning lounging and wandering around the side of the lake.