- Always wear a life jacket (PFD)
It just makes sense to wear a life jacket when paddling. While there’s no law requiring people to wear life jackets on small crafts such as canoes and kayaks in Japan, everyone should be wearing one when on the water. If you insit on taking yours off, do not strap it to the canoe but rather leave it loose in the bottom so that it will float away if the boat sinks.
- Tell someone your plans
Before setting out, let someone who cares about you know where you are going, and when you expect to be back. There’s no official, centralized backcountry reporting system for water-based activities in Hokkaido, so this makes it doubly important to let someone know about your plans.
- Consider a helmet in whitewater
If you are paddling in whitewater, really any swift moving water, especially in a kayak or packraft where you are attached into the boat then it’s a good idea to wear a helmet. Even relatively simple white water can be hazardous if shallow. A bike helmet will do in a pinch, but, a proper whitewater helmet is designed to take multiple impacts.
- Check the weather
Our go-to weather forecast website for the outdoors in Hokkaido is Windy.com. It is a 100% free site, but they use a sophisticated commercial forecasting model that is uncannily accurate. Always check the weather before setting out on the water – this is particularly important for Hokkaido’s larger lakes. They can transform from mirror-like ponds to standing waves in a matter of minutes. If you are paddling a river then you’ll want to be aware of the weather both where you intend to paddle but also in the broader catchement of the river. Steep, short catchements such as those found in most Hokkaido rivers are subject to flash flooding. If you have any concerns, get out of the water and move yourself and your boat to high ground until the storm and any potential risk has passed.
- Get some training
- Canoe paddling courses – If you’re new to canoeing, or are wanting to get some Hokkaido-specific canoeing insight, consider taking a half-day or full-day canoeing course. We did Canadian canoe paddling training with Canoa paddling school, based out of Lake Shikotsu Village. This was pricey (about 15,000yen per person per day), and only offered in Japanese, but it certainly allowed us to improve very quickly on our own schedule. This also gave us some really valuable insight into the conditions on Hokkaido’s waterways. If you’re looking for canoe lessons in English, then try the Niseko Outdoor Center (but, their prices are eye-wateringly expensive). If you’d rather cut costs as much as possible, you live in Hokkaido, and speak at least basic Japanese, consider joining a club such as the Hokkaido Wilderness Canoe club.
- Swiftwater Rescue Training (SRT) – There a couple of outfits in Hokkaido that offer the accredited Rescue 3 SRT qualifications (in Japanese). See the list and dates here.
- Prioritize traveling in a group
Where possible, always travel with two or more boats, in order to facilitate rescue if needed. If you live in Hokkaido, and speak at least basic Japanese, consider joining a club such as the Hokkaido Wilderness Canoe club.
- Carry a navigation device
On each of the HokkaidoWilds.org canoe route guides, we post a printable PDF map of the route. In addition to printing this out and having it on hand in a waterproof case along with a compass, make sure you have some form of GPS navigation device, particularly for the lake routes. Mist can happen. Unfortunately, PLBs are illegal to use a) anywhere other than on the sea and b) by anyone without a Japanese radio license. Consider carrying a SPOT location device for emergencies. See our deep-dive on PLBs here.
- Watch out for obstructions in rivers
This point applies to any sort of river travel anywhere, but particularly in Hokkaido, and Japan as a whole, you’ll particularly need to look out for the following.
- Downed trees – Hokkaido is seeing more and more typhoons head up this way, which has increased the amount of wood in rivers.
- Tetrapods – Japan spends a massive amount of time and money trying to bend nature to humans’ will. This includes dropping a large number of concrete blocks of all shapes and sizes into the rivers.
- Weirs and dams – Our Canadian friend Greg who has canoeing experience in both Canada and Hokkaido tells us “there are a ton of these on Hokkaido rivers and they can be drowning machines. Man made weirs often create uniform hydraulics and keeper holes that are almost impossible to get out of. Hence the term ‘drowning machine’. The portages around these things tend not to be very user friendly in my experience and require a little scouting and usually some bushwhacking!”. Make sure that you leave yourself plenty of time to get out above any obstruction; if you see a uniform horizon line across the river then get out and take a look before proceeding.
- Hire a guide
For all of the major canoeing routes, there are usually guides available that can accompany you on routes and sections appropriate for your level of ability. We’re in the process of making a list of guides in the main canoeing areas of Hokkaido, but in the meantime, a quick Google search will point you in the right direction. If you’re an experienced paddler, we’d recommend preparing a short ‘resume’ with photos that you can include in any correspondence with a potential guide. This will help the guide envisage what level of paddling they can expect from you – most of Hokkaido’s highly experienced guides, bless their hearts, spend most of their time guiding complete beginners, many of whom have never held a paddle before.
- Don’t trust HokkaidoWilds.org
Really, we’re amateurs at paddling in Hokkaido. Sure, we’ve got extremely experienced and highly trained paddlers on the team, and we’re experienced with Hokkaido’s wild places in general. But we’re still building our experience and knowledge with Hokkaido’s rivers and lakes. Take our experiences with a very large grain of salt.
- Do your due diligence
Despite Hokkaido’s abundance of very tourable rivers and lakes, there is a real lack of resources out there in English – hence our desire to fill that gap. But don’t just rely on our information, check websites such as HokkaiCamp.com (Japanese only), and seek out Japanese publications such as the 55 River Touring Routes book, the Canoe Touring Book and the All-Japan Canoe Touring Guide (here’s our full list). Apart from HokkaiCamp.com, all those resources are pretty old though – the newest being over 15 years old – your mileage may vary.
- Keep dry
Hokkaido’s waterways are very cold. If you’re traveling to Hokkaido via Tokyo in the summer, you’ll be forgiven to wonder how on earth Hokkaido could be anything but a sweltering sweat-bath. But way up here in Hokkaido, things are different. A drysuit becomes an important optional garment on flat water and nearly mandatory on swift moving water in spring, early summer, late summer, autumn, and of course winter. Bring a spare set of dry clothes in a drybag.
- Essential canoe and safety gear – our friend Greg Bruyere sent us these tips.
- Whistle – Attached to life jacket such as a Fox 40 or one that works while wet.
- River knife – Attached to life vest. Essential for river runners as rope and current can be a deadly combination.
- Bailing buckets (preferably 2) – I’ve been in more than one situation where I wished I had brought along the second one.
- Spare paddle – Attached to the inside of the canoe. Essential in a flip where it is often impossible to hold on to your paddle while wrestling the canoe to shore. A canoe without a paddle…well you know how the saying goes….as a matter of fact my partner and I flipped on the Sarugawa River at the end of October last year while running it solo and if it weren’t for the extra paddle in the canoe we would have really been up the creek….
- Rescue kit – Doesn’t need to be too crazy, but if you get a large boat such as a 2 person canoe stuck you’ll probably need some mechanical advantage to remove it. A throwbag (static floating rope such as Spectra), several biners, a few 5mm prusiks and some tubular webbing for an anchor will usually do the trick.
- Bow and stern painter ropes – The jury is out on this one. It’s a very contentious issue in the canoe world. Some people like them some people don’t. Some like ’em long some like ’em short. Personal preference really.
In this post, we outline some common-sense safety guidelines for exploring Hokkaido's waterways. Hokkaido is a mecca for off-the-beaten-track canoe, kayak, and packraft touring routes, through wild and remote terrain. Winter boating in particular can be a mesmerizing, phenomenal experience. Along with this come objective dangers, above and beyond those that experienced paddlers will already be familiar with.
Thanks to Greg Bruyere for his valued input on this post.