“One last thing,” Greg said to me. “Bring a handsaw.”
I’d been grilling him about his three times down the Kushiro River, trying to squeeze out every last bit of beta I could before Haidee and I set off on our own four day trip down the river. On this first day on the river, Greg’s advice was worth its weight in gold. After sawing through two 15cm+ diameter trunks of recently downed trees blocking the entire river, I messaged Greg, “I owe you a beer.”
The day started with its own challenges on the 5km lake section from our campsite at Wakoto Peninsula to the river head itself. We woke to a stiff breeze in the campground, buffeting the tent. If the wind was this strong in the campground, it was likely to be even stronger on the lake. It was still just before dawn, but I went for a walk to take a look. Sure enough, there was a strong 20km/h onshore wind blowing from the southeast. There wasn’t much fetch at this end of the lake, particularly towards the southeast, so the waves were not quite whitecaps, but it looked like we were going to be battling a strong cross-wind for at least a few kilometers. I headed back to the tent and started preparing breakfast.
Not knowing exactly what we were getting ourselves into on this first day, we set our departure time to 7am. We wanted plenty of time up our sleeves. So we kept our morning routines efficient, and were already transporting gear and the canoe to the lake by 6:30am. At about the same time, a couple of minks (イタチ) appeared from under the walkway and scampered in and out of view looking for their own sort of breakfast.
Another camper with a folding kayak, from Fukuoka in southern Japan regaled us with some of his stories of the Kushiro River headwaters as we packed the canoe at the campground’s dedicated canoe port. “That top section is a real dodge-em,” he beamed. “I’ve never been further than Biruwa Bridge though, and neither do many others. Good luck on that section. Who knows how many trees might be blocking the river!”
We thanked him for his well-wishes, and got on our way. The wind seemed to be picking up.
Once we got paddling, we realised that this section of shoreline was actually somewhat in the lee of the wind. It was not until we got around a small point that we bore the brunt of the side wind. We had 1km of slow but sure paddling, tacking into the wind and then back to the shore in order to make headway without being pushed onto the shore.
It wasn’t long before we made it to a magical border line where suddenly the lake was as flat as a mirror. We were now in the lee of the wind, and it was plain sailing from here to the head of the Kushiro River. The skies were moody and grey, giving a gorgeous accent to the forested area around the lake. Officially, we were within the Akan-Mashu National Park.
Naoki from Guide House Canoa way west on Lake Shikotsu had recommended we try to find the people from Somokuya, a canoe guiding outfit at this end of Lake Kussharo. “They’re friends of mine – tell me you sent them, and they’ll give you some recent beta on the lower section of the headwaters nearer to Teshikaga.”
When we arrived at the put in location for the Kushiro River headwaters, it was already a hive of activity. There were guides unloading canoes, canoes lashed together as rafts, and even a full sized rafting raft. It was just after 8:30am, so clearly these were the 9am tour preparations. Haidee and I didn’t want to end up in the infamous Kushiro River headwaters traffic jam, so hoped we could find the people from Somokuya quickly. In the end, it ended up that they were also at the put in, getting ready for a 9am tour. “We haven’t gone that far down the river yet this season,” was the lead guide’s rushed response.
We signed the intentions logbook, and took note of the construction warning signs. It appeared that there was some work being done around Teshikaga that we’d need to be careful about. The guide from Somokuya also mentioned it. “There’s one point where you’ll probably have to portage for about 200m or so.” One of the laminated paper signs mentioned an 11.6km section of river that they requested canoeists to avoid, due to dangerous spots and construction. This was far too late for us – we only had our canoe, and a 12km portage was hardly feasible.
It was quite the eerie feeling entering the river from the lake. A great body of water was sucking us down its throat, taking us for what would be a 100km journey to its terminus at the sea.
From here, however, the headwater’s true claim to infamy began. The Kushiro River headwaters winds its way through the Akan-Mashu National Park untouched by the usual Japan propensity to torture rivers into submission with concrete, blocks, and straight channels. There’s always a healthy volume of water heaving its way down the river, with thick forest on either side. Trees on the side of the river succumb every now and then, and simply drop wholesale into the river, still firmly attached at the base, however, to the riversides. This equates to a unique feeling of wilderness, but ensures paddlers are kept busy.
This section of river is more or less one continuous 16km strainer.
With me in the stern, it was comforting to have Haidee in the bow, deftly steering the nose of the boat away from the hazards.
It was clear on this section from the lake to Biruwa Bridge that it was an oft-traveled route. Here and there, branches had been sawn off downed trees, allowing for not much more than a canoe’s width to pass by. Before long, we hit the only significant rapids of this section, the Class 2 ‘Shortcut Rapids‘, as they are marked in a number of guidebooks we’ve seen, and they pushed us on beyond the Biruwa Bridge. The rapids themselves were straight forward. We kept center and only had a small bump in the stern as we hit a rock or block. It all seemed to be well cushioned by moss.
A few hundred meters beyond the Biruwa Bridge, we stopped for a snack and pee-break. The snacking was easy enough – we nestled in to an eddy and spread out in the canoe. The peeing was less straight forward. The river bank along this 16km section of river is more or less inaccessible, with much of it boggy. We eventually found a spot we could scramble up onto. Next time we’ll probably carry a pee-bottle.
We were now on the 10km section of the Kushiro River headwaters where commercial tours rarely come. It was almost immediately evident. We were joined for about an hour by two couples of crested kingfishers, each allowing us to come just that little bit closer each time they stopped on branches ahead of us. They’d then fly off again down the river, and wait for us to catch up.
We were also now by proxy river route clearers. The first was easy enough – just some annoying low twiggy branches that we figured could be widened just a little. Haidee made short work of them with our saw.
Then came the head-scratcher. There were two trees fallen across the width of the river. One had clearly been there for a long time. The base of the tree on the river right side was at least 50cm in diameter, submerged enough that a canoe could easily float over it. The tree extended from this submerged point, however, across the river, ever so slightly rising upwards. A thick tangle of branches, at least three or four hefty branches thick, obscured any way forward on the river left side.
The problem was that there was what seemed to be a newly downed tree right on top of the older, larger downed tree, blocking the clear route on the river right. The choice was either to spend half an hour crafting a tunnel through the 10m or so of branches on the river left, or lopping off the newly downed, 25cm diameter tree on the right, right at the base of the tree.
It would require balancing precariously on the older submerged tree, but I opted for the latter.
I vowed to buy Greg a beer the next time I saw him – without his advice to take a saw, it was unlikely we’d have taken one, and it would have been quite the balancing act to get the canoe and gear over that trunk.
From this point on, it was not what I’d define as smooth-sailing. We had the infamous ‘Canoe Graveyard’ to conquer (around here). “There’s at least five or six canoes submerged down there,” my taxi driver said as I was traveling to Lake Kussharo yesterday from Biruwa Station. This is one particularly nasty corner in the thick of the most bendy section of the Kushiro River. At the bottom of a shallow, fast-moving shoal-ish drop is a monstrous strainer-mass of old trees and debris. The river carries on through this porous canoe-eater as if it is not even there, so it is up to canoeists to cut across the grain to safety on the river left side at the bottom of the drop. This of course requires momentum from river right to river left before one is in the flow down the shoal towards the strainer.
We, however, were taken a little by surprise, and were in the flow before we’d really gotten any momentum up. A few tense moments and strong forward strokes allowed us to just clear the bottom of the swift, closely avoiding our canoe becoming one more piece of the debris.
We pulled up in an eddy just beyond the corner for a tense, shakey debriefing on what we should have done in the situation. Opinions were split, however, so we agreed to consult the NOLS Canoeing book we had stashed in our barrel, once we had made it to our campsite in Teshikaga.
Our depth of experience with canoeing only went so far as a) starting paddling three months ago, b) two days of formal paddling instruction, and c) patchy reading of canoeing books and watching of Youtube videos. We were in the middle of a very sharp learning curve out here on the water.
We were happy to see the canoe port in Teshikaga – we’d made it past what is usually billed as the more technical section of the river, despite the more significant rapids to come.
However, as soon as we the thought the most difficult stuff was behind us, we saw a huge sign at the canoe port informing us that for the next 22km, canoes were prohibited.
This was somewhat of an inconceivable shock. There was no warning of this prohibition at the head of the river at Lake Kussharo. As we noted at the head of the river, there were signs informing river users of construction work being done on the river, but the extent of the warnings were ‘Please take care when passing’, and ‘please avoid canoeing this 11.6km section’.
Now, 17km into a 100km river journey, we were being told in no uncertain terms that it is prohibited to canoe this 23km section of river.
We’re all for respecting the wishes of the respective authorities in Hokkaido. But this seemed to be an overly heavy-handed approach, all without any prior warning. At this point, we felt like we had no other choice but to carry on as planned the next day.
On the advice of Greg, however, we did walk the entire Teshikaga Town section of the river, scouting the river from the river bank walkway and bridges. This section of the river only has a couple of escape points, and the rest of it is encased in high stone walls. The scouting was a good call – there was a nasty concrete block drop at the first large bridge (here) preceded by a very shallow section of river. In higher water, this would be a straight forward runnable drop. Indeed, most guidebooks mention hitting this in the center with no problem. Today, however, we couldn’t see a clean line without jagged blocks waiting at the bottom. The center line seemed to now be a damaged mess of rubble. The portage around this drop and the shallow section seemed easy though. It was almost as if the river sides had been designed for it. An easy take out about 200m upstream, and another easy staircase put-in about 100m downstream. Apart from this drop, this section through Teshikaga seemed perfectly straight forward.
By the time we had walked through town and back again, a persistent light rain was falling. We made a beeline for the nearest onsen (about 100m from our wild campspot), had a soak, and then settled in for a restful night in the tent next to the river.