We knew we had a solid day of paddling ahead of us today, so we woke up early, and were on the water by 6:30am. There was also an air of relief, as we knew the steepest parts of the river were now behind us. For the next one and a half days, we’d be cruising along a moderate flow, with no rapids to speak of – true wetland canoeing at its finest.
No sooner had we got on our way, than we saw the first pair of eyes peering at us from the riverbanks. A herd of young horses gazed at us with a nonchalant curiosity.
We would spend about an hour of paddling along the remains of the lush farmland on the border of the Kushiro Shitsugen National Park before entering the National Park proper. But things were feeling different already. Stopbanks were getting fewer and lower, with the river itself being used as a natural barrier to keep the farm animals enclosed.
At one point, we came across a small canoe port, and we pulled up to take a look around. There was a sign detailing some encouraging river works that had been done to undo large-scale river straightening in the past. The Kushiro River was straightened previously in order to dry out some of the wetlands for farming. This naturally had terrible impacts on the natural environment. Since de-straightening the river, there’s been a 400% increase in the original native Japanese alder forests (ハンノキ林). This is very encouraging to see, considering the wholesale alteration of rivers we see in many places elsewhere in Hokkaido.
Soon enough, we were in the Kushiro Wetlands proper. The river still had a decent flow to it – much more than we’d been led to believe by locals we’d met further upstream. “There’s hardly any flow at all down there,” one local told us. “You’ll have to paddle hard to get anywhere at all!” We were, however, still making good progress.
It wasn’t long before we caught up to the first of many guided canoes along this stretch of the Kushiro River. This wetlands section is a mecca for guided canoe tours of every sort. Along the way we saw single canoes with one client and one guide, canoes lashed together as rafts, 16-person wide-body canoes, and even a rubber raft, packed with tourists.
For the most part, however, we had the river to ourselves.
We were approaching our turn off to Lake Toro (塘路湖), and the closer we got, the less skitterish the deer got. On the upstream section where guided tours don’t seem to run, the deer would scream at us and stamp their hooves. As we got into the realm of the canoe tours, the deer would just stare at us blankly, and carry on nibbling at grass on the river banks.
We were excited that we would be paddling in to Lake Toro to camp today. We’d visited a couple of times on cycle tours, such as the Nemuro to Sapporo trip, but to arrive by canoe…that was something special. Access to the lake from the Kushiro River was straight forward, via a short, very slow moving river. We were paddling upstream, but didn’t have any issues. Along the way, Haidee spotted two large white tailed eagles, watching our progress.
We arrived at the lake, immediately feeling the freedom of a wide open vista, as compared to the relatively claustrophobic river. Ahead of us, a guide was leading a couple of canoes along a narrow path through the lilies. We stopped and waited for them to pass before carrying on to the main canoe port.
We’d made good progress, and had made it to the lake just before noon. Before carrying on to the campground, we had a quick walk around the information center and sat down on the steps to have our rice-ball lunches. A friendly Ministry of the Environment ranger struck up a conversation with us, interested to hear that we’d canoed from Lake Kussharo. “That’s my canoe over there, on my car,” he said proudly, pointing to a beat-up Mad River tandem canoe, strapped to the top of his car. He’d bought the canoe new, and it had clearly seen some serious use.
We asked him if there were any onsen in the area, and he replied that we were about as far from any onsen as we could get, here at Lake Toro. The onsen we’d previously been to on Lake Shiraruto was now out of business. “The closest place for a shower is at the auto campground on Lake Takkobu,” he said. We didn’t even know there was another lake in the vicinity, let alone another campground, so this was music to Haidee’s ears.
“It’s only noon, so you guys could easily get there in another couple of hours,” the helpful ranger said.
That sounded like a nice, unexpected plan, so we decided to push on to Lake Takkobu with a renewed motivation to explore somewhere we’d never been to before.
As we were getting ready to get back onto the water, a group of about 20 were being herded onto canoes a little further around the lake. We hastened our preparations so that we wouldn’t be caught in a traffic jam on the narrow access river from Lake Toro to Kushiro River.
Even then, we found ourselves scooting past canoes full of wide-eyed tour guests, all gasping “wow, you’re so fast!”
Back on the river, the many bends again made us feel like we had the place to ourselves. For the most part, it was easy paddling. A downed tree here, a tight bend there; just enough obstacles to keep us relatively alert. This section of river between Lake Toro and Lake Takkobu was, arguably, the most dramatic in terms of wetland flora…
Nearing the Hosooka Canoe Port (細岡カヌーポート), we knew our turn off to Lake Takkobu was coming up. It was a tight squeeze through barely canoe-width branches and foliage, but we found the channel OK and carried on our way to the lake. Had the friendly Ministry of the Environment ranger not told us about it, we’d never have found it.
We could see the campground on the opposite side of the lake. To get there, we would paddle a gorgeous narrow channel through the tiny lilies on the surface of the lake. This was truly stunning stuff. What a way to arrive at a campground!
We were too early for official check-in, so after checking out the facilities – including a coin laundry! – we used the extra time to set up our tent.
With so much variation on this trip, it’s hard to say what day we’ve enjoyed the most so far. The first day was really enjoyable in that it really challenged our skills on the Kushiro River headwaters (including Lake Kussharo). The second day was super fun in that it was thrilling and relatively steep with plenty of rapids. Today was a real pleasure as far as wildlife and wetland scenery goes.
The Kushiro River really may be the pinnacle of Hokkaido’s rivers for multi-day tripping.