DAY ZERO – THE SHUTTLING
Like most long canoe trips, Day Zero usually consists of the setting up – dropping the canoe off at the start point, driving the car to the take-out at the coast, and getting back to the put-in. In our case, we would take a bus and train to get back to Shibetsu City. All of this takes the better part of a whole day, and this time was no exception. We didn’t get back to Shibetsu until 8:30pm at night.
But let’s back up a few hours. We’d made the 3.5hr drive from Sapporo to Shibetsu City, mostly on the expressway. Fairly painless. We arrived near the put in at around 1pm.
We’d toyed with the idea of staying at the Tukumo-suigo Park Campground in Shibetsu, as this was close to the put in on the Teshio River. But in the end, knowing we’d be returning to Shibetsu late that night on the train, we checked in to a room at the cheap and cheerful Shibetsu Cycling Terminal (士別市サイクリングターミナル, location) for 3,700yen each for a private room, about 250m away from the put in. This enigmatic municipal accommodation facility happened to show up on Google Maps, and we can only assume it’s usually where school groups stay. They have their own communal bath-house, which appealed considering we’d be arriving back late.
The friendly staff allowed us to check in early, and we hurriedly packed our gear and dropped the canoe off outside the building.
Hoping we had everything we needed for the trip, we jumped back into the car and high-tailed it to Teshio Village on the Japan Sea coast. The whole drive more or less follows the Teshio River the entire way. It was strange to think that we were doing all this driving and transferring just to travel essentially the same route in a different mode of transport.
When we arrived at the take-out point in Teshio Village, we were greeted with great views across the sea to Rishiri Island. The Teshio River here was hardly a river any more. It was a colossal body of water, with no visible flow. We hoped for tailwinds on this stretch in a week’s time.
From Shibetsu, we caught a local bus to Horonobe Town, and from there we caught the 6:40pm express train to Shibetsu, arriving back at Shibetsu JR Station at 8:47pm. Long. Day.
We took note of the distinctive red-brick Teshio River museum, and made a promise to ourselves to check it out at the end of the trip.
DAY ONE – SHIBETSU TO NAYORO
It was finally happening. Ever since hearing about the Teshio River over a year ago, we were keen to paddle it. The notion of spending six days travelling on a river was unique to us. We packed up our gear and lugged it, along with the canoe, over the stopbanks behind the Cycling Terminal to the river.
Our luggage was heavy. Making the most considerable contribution to the weight was a backpack full of electronics – two computers, charging equipment, webcams and wireless headphones.
This would not usually be standard fare for a river journey for us, but Haidee had an online conference to present at half way through the trip. The grand plan was to paddle to Nakagawa Town over the course of three days, check into the Ponpira Aqua Rizuingu Hotel there, and hole ourselves up for two days for Haidee to ‘attend’ the conference.
Right off the bat we were impressed by the clarity of the water. Despite the low water level, the swifts were deep enough to get down without scraping the bottom of the canoe. Blue skies. Perfection.
The water level increased considerably once the Kenbuchi River joined with the Teshio. From here, we were starting to feel like we were on the big river Teshio everyone talks about.
The first point of considerable interest for us was the first of the two marked weirs for the day (and the last for the remainder of the trip). I’d read somewhere that the first one at least was sometimes open, and if so, could be run without having to portage. As we approached very carefully, it was our lucky day. The gates were hoisted high up, and we were able to float on through.
Even so, however, the whole facility gave me the heebie-jeebies.
Despite the scary vibes, the open weir saved us at least 30 minutes or more of hot, awkward, sweating portaging. As a reward, we had an early lunch break in a gloriously shaded canoe port just next to a park golf course. Locals playing their rounds of golf hardly gave us a second look – it seems they must see lots of canoeists down this way.
After our break, I decided to send the drone up to capture us paddling down the long section of ledge-strewn shallow rapids. All was going well until I realized we were almost 500m downriver from where the drone was. Being just a small, short-range DJI Spark drone, I knew this was not good news.
If the drone loses connection with the controller, it will automatically start flying back to land at the spot it was launched from. In this case, I’d launched the drone from the water. So, half way down the rapids, I started doing double-duty – paddling and controlling the drone.
Let’s just say I shan’t be doing that again in a hurry very soon.
My multi-tasking led us to careen over an otherwise innocent-looking ledge, into about 75cm of thin air.
The nose of the canoe cane down with the full force of two paddlers and a week’s worth of camping gear. This cracked through the stem of the canoe. We pulled to the side of the river to assess the damage and for me to retrieve the drone.
There was, without a doubt, a hole in the canoe. Should we leave it as it is, water would leak into the flotation tank at the front of the boat. Not at all a fatal injury, but a nuisance all the same. It didn’t help that this was the site of a previous, less serious ding.
In preparation for an eventuality such as this, we always carry a roll of Tyvek tape. This stupidly sticky tape is essentially permanent waterproofing tape used for construction. Much stickier than duct tape or Gorilla tape. I stuck a few layers of tape over the ding, and we carried on our way, a little sheepish and much more carefully.
Further on, the shallow bedrock continued. In hindsight, we should have put the drone up again sooner, as we would have seen a deep channel on the river left. The river right was ankle-deep water over grippy, consistent rock. Beautiful, but a little slower going than paddling.
With the bedrock section behind us, we only had one more technicality remaining for today – the final weir on the Teshio River, 160km from the sea. And it was a classic Hokkaido scramble of a weir portage. Making things much more hurried and stressful were fire ants all along the concrete path along side the river next to the weir. We’d half hoped to sit down for a break at the weir, but that was not happening with biting ants around.
As we were approaching the weir, loud, clear announcements started reverberating across the river. “This is the Uryu Power Station. We have an announcement. The river will rise very soon. All persons in or near the river, please return to a place of safety immediately.”
We weren’t quite sure what to do. The river was wide enough, and the hydro power station outlet we paddled past small enough, to suggest any rise in water would surely be fairly insignificant for us on the water.
You can hear the announcement in the video below at the 1m 24s mark.
As it happened, it seems that they play those announcements extremely far in advance. It wasn’t until later that night the water level actually started rising. About 30cm at Nayoro according to the water level station near the Nayoro-ohashi Bridge (see levels here).
From that last weir, it was an easy paddle the rest of the way to Nayoro. A sign on the Akebono Bridge informed us we were 152.9km from the river mouth.
When we arrived at one of the marked ‘suitable for camping’ spots in Nayoro (under Akebono Bridge), we scratched our heads. Along the banks of the river were imposing steep walls of very long grass, well over our heads. Just to make sure, we pulled up and I scrambled up through the grass. It would be a bit of a nightmare to get all the gear up here.
So we carried further downstream to another marked ‘suitable for camping’ spot, nearer to where canoes are launched for annual canoe events on the river. Just upstream from Nayoro-ohashi Bridge, this was a much more civilized take-out. There were (muddy) concrete steps, half-decently mown grass on the river bank, and best of all, a far corner of the park golf course that looked like prime real-estate for a cheeky overnight camp.
The park golfers who glanced in our direction hardly even batten an eyelid at our temporary camp. We settled in for a restful night.
Successful Day One on the Teshio River.