Posted on Sep 24, 2019
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Posted on Sep 24, 2019

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Reading time: 7 min

We opted to end our Kushiro River (釧路川) four-day trip at the sea. Along the way, the river would actually cease to be the Kushiro River, with this gorgeous body of water being re-directed into the dead-straight and mostly characterless Shin-Kushiro River (新釧路川 – the “New” Kushiro River). This would take us through the heaving industrial city of Kushiro, expose us to solemn coastal Japanese traditions, and allow us to stand on the beach to bid farewell to this grand body of water we’d called home for the last four days.

Today’s essential details

  Distance: 20km |   Gradient: 0.5 mpk (2.64 FPM).

TRIP REPORT

Most sane people end their Kushiro River trips at either the Hosooka Canoe Port (細岡カヌーポート) or the Iwabokki Suimon Canoe Port (岩保木水門). Both avoid the dead-straight Shin-Kushiro River, and by default also avoid an inconvenient portage around a fishing facility. But this was our first time down the river, so we wanted to do the whole thing.

We savoured our time on Lake Takkobu, spending at least 30 minutes sitting quietly on the water, watching white tailed eagles, red crested cranes, and kingfishers.

Eventually we dragged ourselves away from this infinitely idyllic slice of paradise, and headed back to the Kushiro River. 

Not too long after getting back into the main flow of the river, we started catching up with some of the early canoe tours. It was only 7:30am, but there were at least a couple that had started even earlier than that.

We were gaining on a raft made with two canoes lashed together, when we came around a corner to see three people standing up on the river right side of the banks. We didn’t think too much of it, thinking it must have been some hikers going for a walk. As we got closer, I called out “lovely weather today, isn’t it?”

The reply was not what I’d been expecting.

“We capsized!” the older gentleman replied. 

This came out of left field, as this was about as calm a spot of the river as anywhere. Nonetheless, we pulled up to the bank to see if we could help out. “Have you got any dry clothes or a jacket?” we asked. “No,” came the answer.

“How cold are you?”

“She’s shivering.”

“Is there any help on the way?”

“Yes, our guide has called for help.”

As I was handing over my synthetic insulated jacket and a fleece, a third wet gentleman walked over and introduced himself as the guide of the two clients we’d handed jackets to. “Another guide from our company will be here soon, but thank you for the jackets!” He took my address so that he could send the jackets back later, and we carried on our way. The guide with the lashed-together canoes was waiting just downstream too, and said he would stay with them till help arrived.

As we paddled away, we thought how curious the whole situation was. None of the wet and cold individuals were wearing life jackets. We could only assume they had been wearing them on the water, so it was strange they were not wearing them for warmth – there’s a whole lot of insulating potential in a PFD. And how did they capsize in the first place? There were no obstructions in the water we could see.

I also started questioning our response. We could have easily stayed with the group and offered more help – we had a full compliment of camping gear, emergency blankets, sleeping bags etc. Maybe we could have done more? With two professional guides on hand though, we figured surely they’d have everything they needed.

Further downstream we saw their submerged canoe that had obviously floated away. A little further there was a paddle lodged in some trees.

I’m writing this report about a month after the trip, and a week ago I received the jackets back in the post, both dry-cleaned and folded. Along with a hand-written note of thanks, there was a large box of local Kushiro Wetlands branded cookies.

The day was overall dark and gloomy, and as we arrived at the usual take-out spot – Iwabokki Suimon Canoe Port – there was a woman waiting with a van. “I don’t suppose you came across some wet paddlers did you?” she inquired. She was waiting for the group that we’d handed jackets to. We gave her the details as far as we knew, and carried on.

We were now officially not on the Kushiro River. We were on the Shin-Kushiro River (新釧路川) – shin meaning ‘new’. This great man-made canal-like waterway makes a straight shot through Kushiro City to the sea. It isn’t high on many paddlers’ lists of waterways to paddle. One guidebook we have on hand mentions that only ‘paddling mania types’ will attempt this section.

Guilty as charged I guess.

The only real hazard on this section is the river-wide urai fishing net facility, not far downstream from the canoe port. The portage around this was less than ideal. We chose to take out on the river left. This involved a bushy clamber up and around the dam-like net. We favored this side because of the put in on the other side – a nice boat ramp. The river right also looked feasible, with a raised concrete bank both up and downstream of the net. But the top of the concrete was about 1.5m above the water, which didn’t look ideal for getting a canoe and gear up onto. In the photos below, the concrete looks like the natural choice, but the photos belie the height of the concrete banks and swiftness of the water.

Either access point would be feasible, but neither is ideal.

Beyond the fishing facility, it was heads down and paddling all the way. We had a strong wind blowing from the south west, so we hugged the eastern side of the river to keep out of the worst of the wind. 

As we entered Kushiro City proper, we spied a Starbucks. This was too good an incongruous opportunity to pass up. “Let’s go have a latte,” I suggested to Haidee. We’d just spent the last 3.5 days paddling through what felt like gorgeous wilderness. Why not wander into a Starbucks sweaty, dirty, and wet?

After a sweet, caffeinated recharge, we were fortified for the last few kilometers to the sea. By this time, the river was a dirty, smelly quagmire. Factories billowed out steam, and seagull-poop left a tide-line of ordorous residue on the hull of the canoe. 

Despite this, I was glad we’d paddled to the river mouth. We’d been carried by this water from the lake 100km away. This continuous conveyor belt of H2O had transported us here, sans-wheels. There’s something magical and special about that, particularly considering all our other long distance multi-day travels in Hokkaido had thus far been on bicycles.

Adding to all this somewhat solemn contemplative feeling was a three-generation family who arrived just as we were pulling up the canoe to unload. They were carrying a polystyrene box, filled with fruit, plastic decorations, and incense. I watched as they lit the incense, and nudged the box out into the water. An onshore breeze promptly blew it back onto the shore. The older gentleman spent the next 15 minutes trying to coax the makeshift vessel out to sea, but eventually they gave it one last nudge and left it to float back towards to shore. Gulls happily pecked at the tasty morsels contained in the box.

I asked the younger man what they were doing. “We’re sending our ancestors back to the sea,” he replied. After doing a bit of searching on the web afterwards, I learned that this was an Obon tradition – seirei okuri 精霊送り. In other places, rafts will be crafted from more natural materials. This is the end of Obon festivities that last from around the 13th (when ancestors are believed to return to their home towns) till the 15th (when they leave) of August.

We finished packing up, loaded the canoe onto the car, and thus was the end of our first downriver trip on the Kushiro River. We’ll no doubt be back again.

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