Posted on Sep 22, 2019
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Posted on Sep 22, 2019

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Reading time: 10 min

Rapids are not the first thing that come to mind when most people think about the Kushiro River (釧路川). Wetlands, Kussharo Lake, beautiful clear headwaters, cranes, deer. But rapids? Not so much. However, the steep section of the Kushiro River between Teshikaga and Shibecha is a gloriously varied section with plenty to keep experienced canoeists awake and alert. It also includes the infamous must scout Hell’s Ladder – a barely canoe’s width concrete block chute that is best portaged.

Today’s essential details

  Distance: 30km |   Gradient: 3.0 mpk (15.84 FPM).

Onsen: Hotel Teleno Onsen (ホテル・テレーノ) | 500yen | 1.1km from accommodation

TRIP REPORT

CANOE RESTRICTIONS: Officially, according to out-of-the-blue signage at the Teshikaga Canoe Port, as of July 2019 it is prohibited to canoe the majority of today’s route (23km from Yukari Bridge 湯香里橋 in Teshikaga to Sebunbira Bridge  瀬文平橋 in Shibecha) . Reasons given for this prohibition are 1) construction work and 2) fast-flowing rapids, including one dangerous section (the above-named Hell’s Ladder). We ignored this prohibition not out of disrespect, but simply because we had no idea it existed until we arrived in Teshikaga, in our canoe, with no other mode of transport but our canoe. We opted to to carry on cautiously. In the end, there was no longer evidence of construction work being done on the route. Signs requesting canoeists ‘be careful when passing construction’ indicated that construction had ended on the 17th of August. Furthermore, the very well sign-posted dangerous chute – which we named Hell’s Ladder – was indeed very well sign-posted, and required not much more than a 200m portage. The other Class II rapids on the route were perfectly runnable after some precautionary scouting. Our recommendation is if you choose to attempt today’s route, please do the following.

  1. Download the GPS file (GPX with waypoints) we’ve provided, and make sure to scout those sections we’ve marked as needing scouting.
  2. Walk the Teshikaga Town section before canoeing it, taking note of any concerning spots.
  3. Under no circumstances attempt to run Hell’s Ladder without scouting first – in anything but the highest runnable water levels, that chute is naaaaasty and will require portaging.
  4. Understand that running the prohibited section is 100% at your own risk and responsibility.

We began today with a quiet, reflective breakfast at our riverside campsite at the Teshikaga Canoe Port. We were more than a little nervous of what lay ahead. With so much doom and gloom on the signage around the place, we were feeling just a shade naughty for intending to run this ‘prohibited’ section. But what other choice did we have? I guess we could have just essentially called off the trip – left the canoe and gear here, walked to the Teshikaga train station, traveled to the sea, and got the car. But we’d come a long way just to leave.

As we were munching on our oatmeal in silence, we heard a squawking commotion behind us. Haidee peered out of the side of the tent lazily, one hand on her binoculars the other holding a cup of coffee to take a closer look. Yes, those squawks were definitely the crested kingfisher, another look almost got her a face full white feathers. It seemed that the kingfisher was not at all happy to be spied on with binoculars at that time in the morning, and directly swooped through at great speed, causing Haidee to spill coffee everywhere!

We packed up, loaded the canoe, and started on our cautious way through Teshikaga Town. Apart from the small concrete block drop we’d scouted the evening before, we were confident that we’d comfortably make it through town with no troubles. We were glad we had taken Greg’s advice to scout the town section – once we were on the river, there were very few places to stop or escape.

Soon enough we came to our portage take-out point. We moved the gear first. I was cautiously hopeful that the cascade would look runnable with an empty canoe this morning. Alas it hadn’t changed, so we went back for the canoe after we stowed the gear at the bottom of the steps at the put-in.

We were now on our way in earnest. There were no other difficulties through town, and soon enough we came to the first big rapid of the day – the large slide at the confluence of the Tobetsu River and Kushiro River. This slide is straight forward, but big. At almost 100m long, it was something we wanted to scout before committing to. So we pulled up to the left side of the river, bush-based our way to a riverside access road, and walked down to take a look. There were at least five fishermen casting their rods in along this small section of river. We were going to have an audience, that was for sure.

Our quick scout reassured us that if we kept to the center, we’d be fine. There were a few standing waves towards the bottom, but all going well we’d be able to dodge them to the left or right, to avoid too much splashing about.

And it was straight forward. The fishermen cheered us on as we careened down the torrent and on our way to the next set of more natural rapids. Just before the next set of rapids, we stopped for a snack, and did our due diligence by going for a walk around the corner to see what we were getting ourselves in for.  We’d need to be on our toes (or should that be our knees) for this rapid, but so long as we kept to the center, we’d be fine.

And then came the infamous ‘many capsize incidents’ spot. We’d read various reports about this spot. The signs along the river offered it as partial support for a wholesale prohibition on canoes along this entire 22km section of river, the guides we’d talked to at Lake Kussharo dismissed even lining a canoe down it, and Greg said “we can’t even remember seeing it the first time we did it, the water was so high.”

Needless to say, we were spooked enough to pull up plenty ahead of it. Greg had mentioned that the second time they ran the Kushiro River, this spot had taken them by surprise, and they’d pulled up on river right just in time. “We did an easy, short portage around the right hand side,” he said via Messenger. The right hand side looked sketchy to us, with no obvious eddy and a number of obstacles in the way. So we pulled up on the river left. We’d already decided all the warnings were enough to decide on a portage without even seeing the chute, so we spent 15 minutes heaving and hauling gear and canoe up a steep bank and onto a gravel access road.

We first carried the gear about 100m down the road, and were surprised to see a brand new concrete escarpment leading down to the river. Upon investigation, it seems that this was the recently repaired section. It was very straight forward to get the canoe and gear back into the river.

I wanted to get a better look at this infamous chute, so I clambered along the concrete blocks upstream from the new concrete section.

It turned out that a portage was the right choice for us. The entire Kushiro River was being forced into a narrow chute, hardly three meters wide, flanked on both sides by jagged concrete blocks. Some driftwood had lodged itself on one side of the entrance to the chute, making the entry even more sketchy, and forcing the main flow to power into the right hand side blocks.

I decided there and then to give this seemingly nameless chute a name: Hell’s Ladder (地獄のハシゴ). It certainly looked like that’s where it was descending to.

Hell's Ladder

地獄のハシゴ August 2019

Portage Strongly Recommended

Kushiro River Multi-day Canoeing Trip (Hokkaido, Japan)
1) 100m from Hell's Ladder entrance
Kushiro River Multi-day Canoeing Trip (Hokkaido, Japan)
2) 50m from entrance - mess of tetra blocks
Kushiro River Multi-day Canoeing Trip (Hokkaido, Japan)
3) Hell's Ladder entrance (water pushing to right side)
Kushiro River Multi-day Canoeing Trip (Hokkaido, Japan)
4) 30m downstream from entrance
Kushiro River Multi-day Canoeing Trip (Hokkaido, Japan)
5) Driftwood obstruction 50m downstream
Kushiro River Multi-day Canoeing Trip (Hokkaido, Japan)
6) Looking upstream from 15m below driftood obstruciton
Kushiro River Multi-day Canoeing Trip (Hokkaido, Japan)
7) Downstream from obstruction
Kushiro River Multi-day Canoeing Trip (Hokkaido, Japan)
8) 75m downstream from entrance
Kushiro River Multi-day Canoeing Trip (Hokkaido, Japan)
9) 100m downstream from entrance
Kushiro River Multi-day Canoeing Trip (Hokkaido, Japan)
10) 125m downstream from entrance
Kushiro River Multi-day Canoeing Trip (Hokkaido, Japan)
11) Hell's Ladder exit
Kushiro River Multi-day Canoeing Trip (Hokkaido, Japan)
12) New concrete banks

At the exit of this monstrosity was a gloriously sedate river, now happily freed from the claustrophobic constraints of the gauntlet. To be clear, it was a considerable inconvenience to have such a tough portage up and over the stopbanks. But to cite this as a reason to put a blanket prohibition on canoes for an entire 23km section of one of Japan’s most famous canoeing rivers? This seemed beyond me.

No sooner was all this excitement behind us, than we met the most significant rapids of the whole trip. They were significant in the sense that had we not scouted them, we may have made some questionable choices. But after picking our line to the river left of the large boulder – and hole behind it – we managed to get through with not much trouble at all.

The scouting process was great fun too – we were walking along bedrock, and there was a gorgeous mineral-rich stream cascading into the river along the way.

Beyond these rapids, it was bread-and-butter Hokkaido river canoeing. A Class I rapid here, another one there, punctuated by overall very well behaved stretches of mostly human-intervened river (straightened sections running through farmland).

Of course, there were plenty of tetra blocks along the way –  a mainstay of Japan river scenery, unfortunately.

We drifted into Shibecha Town in the late afternoon. Greg had warned us that the canoe port at the dedicated river tripping rest area was difficult to spot, with only a very small eddy to grab, so we were on high alert as we edged along the river left riverside. Even then, we overshot the eddy, apparently even smaller now than when Greg was last there. Erosion had claimed two trees on either side of the entrance, making it hardly long enough for one canoe. We pulled in to a scrambly take-out about 30m downstream, and bush-bashed our way up to the park.

Kushiro River Multi-day Canoeing Trip (Hokkaido, Japan)
The official, largely inaccessible canoe port

The sheltered pagoda spot at the Kawa-no-eki (literally, ‘River Station’) was a slice of paradise. It was simple, but clearly well thought out by who ever had designed it those tens of years ago when there’d been great optimism for a canoe tripping boom. A solid pagoda and low pine hedge provided shelter from the prevailing wind, and a well-positioned tree made for a great second pillar for a clothes line. Public toilets and a mains water supply were a short 3 minute walk away over the stop banks.

We were also within easy walking distance of a few restaurants, convenience stores, and two onsen. This made decisions very easy regarding dinner – soba noodles at the local soba place, with apple pie for desert from the sweet shop just over the road. We opted to walk 15 minutes to the Tereno Onsen for a hotspring soak, to make the most of their outdoor pools.

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