“I’m not sure I’ll be able to join you tomorrow,” Rick mused at the end of today’s efforts. We were soaking in the Tomuraushi onsen after the toughest, most uncertainty-fraught day of the trip so far. “Today’s route really took it out of me,” he said.
It certainly had been tough. What I’d hoped would be “well packed smooth gravel” (as per the Touring Mapple’s description) on the Penke-nikorobetsu Forestry Road turned out to be 45km of stop-start cycling. In multiple places we had to get off the bikes and haul them over fallen trees, or push them along narrow deer-tracks around washed out section of road. We were now in deep Hokkaido wild territory. Everything we’d experienced on the last three days was being magnified on a larger scale.
The day started out mellow enough though. We woke to a thick mist that had engulfed the campground. We were hoping it would lift enough to give us some decent views of the Daisetsu Range that we would be cycling through today. We were on pavement for about 15km, after leaving the campground riding past quintessential Hokkaido farming land.
I was excited to get onto the Penke-nikotobetsu Forestry Road, as it was described in the Hokkaido Touring Mapple mapbook as one of the best forestry roads in Hokkaido, with good views of Mt. Tokachi and other peaks in the Daisetsu mountain range. The first 10km or so was good gravel, open to general traffic. There was even a fresh spring water outlet along side the road. We were feeling positive.
After a while, our positive vibes were starting to take a hit. Two motorcyclists on well-equipped dirt touring trail bikes who had passed us on the uphill passed us again coming the other way. It was clear that for some reason, they’d turned back. Before long, we discovered why. There was a 50m section of road completely missing. Two days ago, on the Soshubetsu Forestry Road, we’d also encountered washouts. But this was on a different scale. The only way ahead was to scramble down, push and carry out bikes across the riverbed, and haul them back up the other side.
This was a shock, not so much for the effort that would be required to get past this particular washout, but for the uncertainty it suddenly filled us with. We had about 35km of this road ahead of us. What if one of the bridges on the other side of the pass was washed out? Would we have to turn back and do almost 20km-worth of back-tracking? In my stubborn-headed determination, I wanted to push on, so we tentatively decided to get ourselves across this washout and see what was up ahead.
Just beyond this first washout were a couple of downed smaller trees, which we made short work of with Tom’s folding saw. Then another washout. Beyond this, however, all the way to the top of the Oku-Tokachi Pass (奥十勝峠, 960m), we only encountered very minor washouts. There were sections of 2m high rhubarb-like vegetation that was stiflinf the road, but it was all cycle-able. The road surface alternated between double-track, overgrown grass, and some single-track.
Like Day 1 and Day 2, cycling on these backblocks forestry roads entailed a non-stop fight against not only the road condition, but also the large Hokkaido horse flies. They don’t bother you if you’re moving faster than a brisk walking pace, but stop for a drink or for food, and you’re instantly a bush buffet. Needless to say, there were very few stops on this 2 hour slog up to the pass. Once we were at the pass, however, we were high up enough that the bugs were no longer hanging around.
The downhill from the Okutokachi Pass to the Tomuraushi Onsen access road was quite exhilarating. Yes, it was fast, and the road was just rough enough to keep you on your toes. The real excitement, however, was not knowing if any (or all) of the major bridges along the way would be washed out. We’d seen the remnants of what the typhoons had done to the road coming up. Have the bridges survived? It was very much up in the air. We were optimistic that even if a bridge was missing we’d be able to cross the river on foot, but as we descended and the river transformed from a babbling brook to a very decent-sized torrent, even that optimism started fading.
Mercifully, the bridges were still in place, high above the river below. We had a renewed sense of achievement. This was not only because of the bridges; we were now accustomed to washouts. As soon as we approached one, we’d calmly look for the deer tracks that would inevitably lead us around to the road again. While it was clear that humans no longer frequented this road, the deer still used it.
It was the last 10km climb up to Tomuraushi Onsen that really took it out of us. The Penke-nikorobetsu and Shiitokachi Forestry Roads had taken much longer and much more effort than we had anticipated, and then we had this final climb to tackle. We were running on empty. When we arrived at Tomuraushi Onsen, the first thing I did was buy up on sweets and potato chips (the only ready-to-eat things on the shop’s shelves), and promptly consume them. Only then was I in any condition to make the final 1km ride to the campground to set up camp and have an onsen.
Unfortunately, dinner at the onsen is only open to guests that are staying, so we made do with a couple of large-size instant cup-noodle meals, each worth about 450 calories. The kind staff prepared them with boiling water for us.
By the time we got back to the campground, it was dark. We all headed off to sleep, wondering what the next day would bring.