We had a relatively late departure from Paul’s place in Kamishihoro. It was raining hard. Rick would not be with us for the rest of the trip, as he had to cycle over to Lake Kussharo to help family with potato digging in a few days. So it was just Tom and me again. Setting out into driving rain.
The plan was to take the eastern gravel road around Lake Nukabira today on our way up and over the Kachiboku Pass (勝北峠, 972m) to Lake Oketo (置戸湖). I had cycled this section of gravel about five years ago, and it was a straight-forward grunt up and over a gravel-road pass (story here).
To get to this section of gravel, we had a 15km ride from Kamishihoro to Nukabira Dam. This first involved a heads down, bums on seats grind on pavement up to Lake Nukabira from Kamishihoro.
The first setback came once we arrived at the Nukabira Dam. We’d hoped to cycle the eastern side of the lake on a gravel road. But that was not to be. While other gates we’d encountered so far on this trip provided gaps on either side that pedestrians and other non-motorized transport could use to get past, this gate said in no uncertain terms that we’d not be getting through. I’d been looking forward to this section of gravel, because there are supposed to be some old concrete arches in the lake on that side of the lake.
We resigned to following the old road next to the new road, on the western side of the lake. This was pleasant enough, giving traffic-free riding along side the lake, and through old tunnels, although only until the Nukabira Township. From the start of the township we tried following some old railway tracks (now completely unused), but these ended in a dead end for us – a flight of steep and narrow stairs. We resigned to cycling on the main road up to our turnoff to the Kachiboku Pass forestry road that would, in theory, take us over the Lake Oketo.
The only drama we experienced on this stretch of road was Tom’s tire blowing out. The sidewall was torn, so we made a makeshift tire boot out of duct tape and carried on.
It was still pelting down with rain as we turned off the main road onto the mouthful of a forestry road – the Mitsumata-Oketo Rindo Forestry Road (三股・置戸林道). It should be note that about four years ago, I cycled this road with zero issues. It was a run-of-the-mill, bread-and-butter Hokkaido forestry road. Completely open to the public.
Today was a different story.
The road was utterly destroyed in places. Where the road used to be, the river had re-routed itself along it. In multiple places, we had to haul the bikes under and over trees, or push them through shoulder-high undergrowth off the road.
We were lucky in a morbid sense in that it appeared a group of trail bikers had come this way recently. We were able to follow their tracks through the brush and sasa bamboo grass. We only had to take the folding saw out a couple of times to remove some of the larger tree trunks blocking our way.
Then came the first major washout. This was where the road had originally straddled a steep gully, probably with a culvert under many thousands of cubic meters of gravel. This now simply no longer existed. The trailbikers obviously had turned back at this point. The only way forward was to walk up and over a small bluff, down to the stream, and then back up to the road on the other side. On foot with no bikes, this would have been perfectly straight forward. With heavy bikes though, we had to take our time. We removed most of our luggage first and then ferried the luggage and bikes separately. Below is a photo from the other side of the washout. Tom is dwarfed by the debris.
This was washout number one, the smallest of the three we’d encounter along our way, hoping to get to the pass after not too long. We didn’t want to be caught out after dark. The rain was a persistent downpour, and the wind was picking up. We were now at about 800m in altitude.
The next washout was more disconcerting than the first. About 1.5 times the size of the last, it required a more hefty hike-a-bike up and over a bluff, and then a slide down a muddy, slippery slope to the riverbed. We hoped we didn’t have to return this way. Getting the bikes up the slippery slope would be a tough job.
We cycled on for another 800m or so, and then came across another washout. This one was the largest of them all. We dropped the bikes and did a reconnaissance wander down to the river below. Getting to the river would be easy this time around, but getting back up to the road on the other side looked almost impossible. We’d need to bush-bash through head-high sasa bamboo grass, uphill, on a slope steep enough that it’d require a firm grip on said sasa, pulling oneself up, while hauling the bike in the other hand.
I hesitate to label it as completely impossible, but our situation was getting untenable. We were soaked to the bone. It was already 5:30pm, with sundown at around 6:30pm. Even if we did manage to get past this washout, what’s to say there wouldn’t be another just 500m up the road. Or, worse, half way down the pass on the other side.
As frustrating as it was – we were only 700m as the crow flies to the pass – we decided to pull the plug. We knew there was the Horoka Onsen back towards Nukabira. And at that moment, there was nothing more tempting in the world than the promise of a long hot soak in a hotspring.
Of course, the decision to turn back was just the beginning of another hard job of getting ourselves and the bikes back up and over those two bluffs. By the time we were done, we were getting colder. We both pulled on an extra layer over our already soaked base layers, and put wet jackets back over this new layer. We started feeling warmer right away. The downhill back to the road was relatively quick, apart from me getting a snake-bite puncture. I will forever be in Tom’s debt, as the only spare inner-tube I was carrying turned out to be a 20″. In my haste in leaving home over a week prior, I hadn’t double checked the tire size. Tom’s spare 26″ tube fit my 29″ rim and tire OK, and we carried on down the mountain. We were spooked at one point where a large, 30cm diameter tree trunk blocked a path we’d cut only 2 hours ago. Was the weather really that rough right now that trees were dropping around us?
We finally got back to the main road just as the last wisps of daylight were fading. My front dynamo-powered light wasn’t working due to the broken dynamo hub, so I only had my head torch to light the way. Of course, this being eastern Hokkaido, the road was mostly free of traffic. We hurtled down the road in the pitch black and driving rain with only one thing on our minds – the warm embrace of a hot onsen.
After what felt like an eternity, we came across the turnoff to Horoka Onsen. It was a stiff climb up to the onsen, but when we arrived at 8pm, we were very happy to hear that they’d only just 1 hour ago had a cancellation, meaning we could stay the night. Had there not been that cancellation, we would have been turned away. They didn’t seem too fussed about us being completely soaked. It seems that this is a popular onsen for motorcyclists and cyclists. They let us hang our soaked clothes and shoes in their boiler room, and showed us to our room. In the excitement of the latter half of the day, I hadn’t noticed that I still have my non-waterproof wallet in my outer pocket. They also didn’t seem too fussed when I handed them a completely soaked 5,000yen note.
We were, finally, home for the night.