Losing a Canoe on the Shiribetsu River

Posted on May 17, 2022
Posted on May 17, 2022
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This past weekend, we temporarily lost our canoe on the Shiribetsu River near Niseko. We were with another boat, so with their help we were able to locate it an hour later, 7km downstream from where we capsized. There were many things learned from this unplanned adventure. Here's our story of misadventure during the Shiribetsu River's spring melt season.

The crew: Haidee and Rob (in the canoe), Timbah and Ben (in the packraft).

A Map of Events

The Story of the day’s events

We arrived at the put-in at around 10am, just in time to coincide with at least four or five rafts setting off. A child was crying. “It’s too scary,” she sobbed.

“It’s OK,” said the guide, “we’ll put you in the middle of the raft where it’s really safe.”

I was feeling nervous. The water looked quite high.

The Shiribetsu River Summer Rafting Course was in full spring melt mode. The last time we paddled it was at 167.5m on the gauge. Afterwards, Greg informed us on Messenger we were running it at 167.92 – a full 42cm higher.

After setting off, it didn’t take long for Haidee and I to almost swamp the canoe. This short 8km section was sporty today! For Haidee and I in our 16ft Prospector tandem canoe, our adrenaline was pumping.

Timbah and Ben in the packraft were, of course, having the carefree time of their lives.

We pulled up well above the Futamata Rapids, well before the bend, as being in an open deck canoe, we didn’t want to run those rapids blind. We walked along shore to scout what we figured to be the main crux – the funnelled wave train at the exit of the rapids. We quickly decided that taking on water on this wave train would be the main problem on the rapids that we needed to solve. The waves were big and long. If we took on considerable water on that wave train, we’d then have a very heavy boat to manoeuvre to the eddy on the river left. We figured we’d need to make that eddy, as beyond that, there was another long set of punchy rapids.

The water was much higher than the last time we ran it.

We noticed that we might be able to take a dry line to the river left of the wave train, essentially paddling parallel to the shore, ending up on top of the eddy line. We deemed this to be the conservative option to shoot for. If we could stick that line, we’d avoid taking on water. If we couldn’t stick that line, we’d simply be funnelled into the main wave train, and we could deal with any water taken on.

We also discussed entry to the rapids, well above the main funnel. River right looked to be just one massive long wave train, so we wanted to avoid that in order to avoid taking on too much water too soon. River left of center was looking good – a nice green tongue heading into shallower-looking rapids with less height in the waves.

The entry to this tongue was slightly problematic though, as there was a white wave in the center of it, with two smaller entry points on either side.

We figured we wanted to be on the river left of the main crux funnel, so we’d enter on the left side of the tongue.

In hindsight, we didn’t notice the large river-left flow of the river across the wide, flooded upper ‘shelf’ above the rapids. Nor did we spot any considerable rocks to avoid on the left of the tongue. This would ultimately be our undoing.

Timbah and Ben took up backup positions next to the wave train, with a throwbag at the ready. Haidee and I walked back to the canoe, hopped in, and eddied out into the flow.

We hit our planned entry point to the rapids perfectly. Just shaving the left side of the whitewater at the center of the green-water tongue. However, we were pushed to the left side of the tongue more than expected, and to our complete surprise there was a large rock (or maybe tetra block) waiting for us.

Haidee noticed it first, and planted a solid draw to pull the nose of the canoe away from it.

However, the left side of the canoe rode up on the rock and tipped us over. We were swimming and the canoe was upside down.

Perhaps we could have reacted differently to the rock. Perhaps instead of trying to avoid it, we should have embraced it and leaned hard towards it sooner and with more purpose.

Haidee was the bow paddler, so was now floating down towards the wave train with the canoe above her. She was not able to grab a rope, and quickly realised she had to roll onto her back with feet facing downstream and move away and upstream of the canoe to avoid injury. A desperate backstroke style butterfly ensued, which enabled her to move away from the canoe, but alas also straight down the biggest wave train and further from shore. 

At this point I was relatively close to the river-left shore. As if on auto-pilot, I grabbed the long daisy-chained stern painters line and tried to get to the shore.

I was still above the main funnel of the rapids. Haidee was now being flushed down. 

I made it to the sandstone bedrock shore, and the daisy-chained rope had unravelled completely. I only had about 5cm of rope left, and I was still in knee-deep water. Irrationality took over and it seemed my mind had proposed that I hold onto the rope while a) I was stood on slippery rock, and b) the canoe was flushed down a spring-flood rapid. My mind had decided that I would heroically prevent the canoe from flowing down the rapid. Of course that was never going to happen, and I was forced to let the rope go.

The canoe floated downstream with us all looking longingly after it. With the canoe downstream, Timbah yelled ‘I’m gonna throw a rope’ getting Haidee’s attention to catch the rope and pull her into the eddy. 

The possibility of capsizing at the entry of the rapids never even entered into our pre-run discussions, nor did it enter our minds. We discussed our game plan should we capsize in the main wave train. But the entry? No way. We didn’t imagine tipping there.

Had we discussed capsizing on entry, 50m upstream of the wave train, perhaps we would have talked about just swimming the rapids with rope (or canoe) in hand, and attempting to swim (or swing) it to shore with the aid of the considerable eddy just left of the wave train. The wave train was deep. There was next to no hazard in swimming it. The eddy to the left of it was also deep and uniform. Compared with my muddled attempts at halting a 16ft capsized canoe from flowing down a rapid while I slip over bedrock in knee-deep water, swimming was clearly the safer option.

Reviewing the footage and frame-grabs of the post-capsize events (particularly the one above), I can’t help but feel even stronger about this alternative strategy. I should have just gone with the rope in my hand down the chute, and swung the canoe to the bank afterwards. I absolutely should have delayed self-preservation, dedicating just a little more time to keeping the boat in play.

Hindsight (and a GoPro on my head) does wonders.

We didn’t panic, seeing the canoe float down the river because,

  1. We had another boat – the tandem packraft.
  2. We were relatively close to the planned take out – Timbah and Ben were wearing wetsuits, so could river-float the remainder. Haidee had minimal insulation under her drysuit, and was already feeling cold. I had more insulation under mine, but not to the level of the wetsuits.
  3. We had the packraft, so we could carry a swimmer if need be – Timbah was comfortable in his 4/3 wetsuit, Ben not so much in his 2/3, so Ben did end up on the raft with us.
  4. At absolute worst the canoe would get pinned somewhere – we’d eventually find it paddling down the river in the packraft.
  5. If it didn’t get pinned, and we didn’t get to it in time, it would just end up snagged in the drift-wood strainer above the Kutchan Dam (which would no doubt be a logistical nightmare to retrieve).
  6. We knew the river slowed down and widened considerably beyond the rafting takeout, which would slow the canoe’s downriver journey.
  7. We’d outfitted the canoe with a huge central airbag, so the likelihood of it getting pinned was lower at least.
  8. The airbag would also help slow its journey down-river, as less of the canoe was embedded in the faster upper laminar flow of the river.
  9. All our gear (including my mirrorless camera and extra lens) was securely attached to the canoe in watertight bags.

So we calmly ate a suitably hurried but not too hurried lunch of bananas, riceballs, and mixed nut butter (thanks Ben and Timbah!).

Timbah and Ben walked upstream above the rapids to run it in the packraft, which was still moored upstream. They ran it perfectly.

Haidee and I took Timbah and Ben’s places in the packraft, Timbah showed off his best bellyflop into the river, and the swimmers started on their way after a quick briefing by Timbah, the most experienced river swimmer in the group. We trailed them as they swam to monitor their progress.

After about 5-10 minutes of swimming, it became evident that Ben’s wetsuit was not thick enough to hold up against an extended immersion in the frigid Shiribetsu-gawa’s spring melt, so he hitched a ride on his belly with his legs in the air in the center of the packraft (reminiscent of the happy sun pose that spotted seals in Hokkaido take up). Timbah seemed to be in his element for the full 30 minute swim to the planned take out.

Along the way were a few fishermen. They all confirmed that yes, a white, sans-paddlers canoe had floated past them.

At the take out, Ben and Timbah took our keys, and drove to the put in to get the van. Haidee and I carried on paddling down the river at a faster-than-normal all-day pace. We finally caught up with the canoe 7km downstream, one hour after capsizing.

We happened to catch up with the canoe at a very convenient spot – a shallow only-just-flooded gravel bar. I was able to jump out of the packraft into calf-high water and grab the canoe. After emptying it, we let down the packraft, stuffed it into the canoe, and carried on down to a convenient take out lower downstream. We were very relieved that we were able to find it, and retrieve it without need of outside help or the fancy ropework required in unpinning a canoe.

Timbah and Ben were already at the takeout, ready to help us off the water. I thanked them for their help in getting us out of a pickle.

Next time I’ll hold onto the rope just a little longer…probably…maybe…oh the complexities of capsizing an open deck canoe when running rivers.

A video of events

Comments | Queries | Discussion

4 thoughts on “Losing a Canoe on the Shiribetsu River”

  1. Matteo Convertino

    Hey Rob. this is a great hydrologic description too :)! Sounds like a scary incident but you guys are all super-equipped. Missing that river water quality of Hokkaido. Unbeatable in many ways in many places.

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