Posted on Dec 1, 2020
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Posted on Dec 1, 2020

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Reading time: 6 min
33km

Distance

1 day(s)

Time

0.43 mpk

Gradient

3/5

Water clarity

Class I

Difficulty

May-Oct

Best season

Abashiri River (網走川) in far eastern Hokkaido first flows into the expansive Lake Abashiri (網走湖) and then makes a final meander through Abashiri City to the Okhotsk Sea in northern Japan. The river and lake teems with birdlife, including eagles, kingfishers, storks, and other birds of prey. The lake section hugs the eastern shoreline, and requires a very favourable wind forecast - whitecaps can form on this otherwise shallow lake very quickly. With a JR train line close by, however, there are a number of escape routes along the way. The final stretch of the route through Abashiri City takes the paddler past the expansive Abashiri prison, and then finally along side fishing vessels and sea birds.

We visited this route on Jul 24, 2020

Route Map

Need to know details

Difficulty

Overall difficulty: Beginner (4/10)

Remoteness: 2/5

River Details

This route is on Abashiri River (網走川), or Apa-shir in the Ainu indigenous language. The river is a Class A (一級河川) river, 115km in total length. This section of the river is between 20m and 70m wide. The gradient for this section of river is 0.43 mpk (2.27 FPM).

Weather: Windy.com weather forecast for Abashiri River

Current water level: 0.00m and stable. No river level warnings issued. Last updated 2021/08/02 11:00 (Source | 10min trend data).

Ideal water level: 7.50m
Water level paddled 7.50m
Water level notes: This section is at the very lower end of the Abashiri River, so we would not expect it to suffer from low water levels, even in the height of summer.
Location

Abashiri River is located in far eastern Hokkaido, not far from Memanbetsu Airport near Abashiri City. The river flows from high up in the Akan Volcanic group northwards into the Okhotsk Sea.

In addition to the put-in and take-out locations below, there are also plenty of locations around Lake Abashiri where paddlers can access the water (e.g., Yobito Campground, Memanbetsu Campground).

Put-in Location: Google Maps

If doing the full route, the most practical point to put in is around Bihoro Town (美幌町), not far from Bihoro JR Train station (美幌駅, location). There’s an easily accessed riverside area around here – there’s a rough trail down to the riverbed. Further upstream there are multiple weirs in quick succession, which makes paddling upstream of Bihoro less appealing.

Take-out Location: Google Maps

If doing the full route, we recommend taking out halfway between Chuo-bashi Bridge (中央橋) and Abashiri-bashi Bridge (網走橋) in Abashiri City, here. There’s plenty of parking at the nearby carpark.

General notes

Despite Lake Abashiri being quite the tourist trap, the lake is expansive enough that paddlers won’t notice – the large tourist hotels are well spaced out here and there on the southeastern shoreline, and for the most part on this route, you’d never know they’re there. With the river flowing into the lake, then flowing out of the lake again to the sea, it’s quite an interesting canoe touring route. Japanese guidebooks we’ve seen lament at the water quality of the river and lake, and we concur to a degree – it’s a fairly typical low-lying lake that could do with some water quality control. But it’s still worth a paddle, and the birds don’t seem to care – we saw majestic eagles as well as diminutive kingfishers. A bit of a birdwatcher’s paradise.

Route description

Starting from Bihoro, head downstream at a reasonable pace as the river keeps flowing relatively fast. After about 10km, the river slows down considerably, essentially becoming an extension of the lake. Expect to be flat-water paddling for about 15km of this route.

The river is relatively well sheltered, but once on the lake, paddlers will need to make the decision to cut 1km across open water to the closest opposing shore, or play it safe and stick to the shoreline. If the wind is up and there’s even a hint of whitecaps, we’d recommend taking the safe option and head south around the shoreline towards Memanbetsu Campground. In this latter case, add another hour (5km) at least to the route. The shoreline along the western side of Yobito-hanto Peninsula is quite spectacular, home to a plethora of birdlife.

The final few kilometers of the river from the lake through Abashiri City is quite interesting in their own right. You’ll paddle past the large Abashiri Prison walls; the new prison, not the infamous historic site. You may see rowers training at and near the river inflow from the lake too. At about 5km downstream from the lake, there’s a river-wide salmon fishing installation that may need to be portaged around from late summer into the autumn – portage on the left.

For taking out, there’s a nice artificial beach just upstream of the Abashiri-bashin Bridge, with a large parking lot nearby.

Route Timing
Trip time: 6hrs 0min

Be prepared for a very long day if planning to smash this out in one day. It would likely take over 5 hours, considering there’s about 15km of flat-water paddling involved.

Transport

Public transport:

Quite conveniently, there’s the JR Sekihoku (石北本線) trainline running the length of this route, so there’s good rail access from the end of the route (Abashiri JR Station 網走駅) and the beginning of the route (Bihoro JR Station 美幌駅). Both stations are about a five minute walk from the river. Along the way, if the weather packs in, there’s the likes of Memanbetsu JR Station (女満別駅) at the far south end of the lake, and Yobito JR Station (呼人駅) about half way along the eastern side of the lake (about 4km walk from the lakeside). Trains are relatively infrequent during the day, so we’d recommend taking a look at Google Maps to get an idea of when trains are running.

By car: 

Near the put-in in Bihoro, it would be acceptable to park one’s car on the grass area near the river, here. At the take-out in Abashiri City, there’s a large car parking area next to the public library, here.

Physical maps
Official Topo Map: Hiushinai (緋牛内) – map no. NK-55-31-13-4
Official Topo Map 2: Yobito (呼人) – map no. NK-55-31-13-1
Official Topo Map 3: Notoroko (能取湖) – map no. NL-55-36-16-2

NOTE: The official 1/25000 topo map(s) above can be purchased for 350yen from Kinokuniya bookstore next to Sapporo Station or online (in Japanese).

route safety

The river sections of the river are relatively straight forward, but this route involves some open-water paddling across Lake Abashiri. Carefully consult the weather, and avoid the route if the wind is up, particularly if blowing from the west. We got caught out with strong westerlies as we were paddling along the western side of the lake. We had to pull the plug, walk to the nearest station, and return to the canoe the next day.

Weather forecast

Windy.com weather forecast for Abashiri River

CampSites

Yobitoura Campground (呼人浦キャンプ場)

Yobitoura Campground (呼人浦キャンプ場) is a basic, free campground at the northern end of Lake Abashiri in eastern Hokkaido. It’s popular among touring motorcyclists, and gives easy access to a very sheltered part of the lake for canoeists.

Location: 43.99536 N / 144.22341 E | Free | Open: Apr-Oct
Closest Onsen: Abashiri Kanko Hotel (網走観光ホテル) | 700yen | 0.5km from campground
Onsen nearby

There’s no onsen close by within Abashiri City, but we visited the ultra-local sento (public bath) within the city – Tokiwa-yu (ときわ湯, location). It’s nothing special, but it felt like stepping back in time.

Extra Resources

The Book of Leisurely Hokkaido Rivers by Ishimoto (2009), p. 36 (in Japanese).

Show Full Route Notes Close Route Notes

Route Trip Notes

We’d finished paddling the Shibetsu River, and immediately made our way to the free lakeside campground of Yobitoura next to Lake Abashiri. It was Saturday evening, but the campground was surprisingly empty – just a handful of bikers with their tiny tents pitched beside their bikes. We set up our tent, cooked up some dinner, and hit the sack.

The next morning, anticipating a long day on the water, we were away from the campground early. We had to drop the canoe at the put in point at Bihiro, drive back to to Abashiri, park the car, walk to Abashiri JR station, and make our way back to Bihoro by train. All of that went like clockwork, and we were on the 8:06am train at Abashiri back to Bihoro.

We were back at the put-in by 9:30am. Even then, we knew we had out work cut out for us to get the 33km or so paddled before sun down.

For the first 10km or so of the river, we were happy with the progress we were making. The river was moving fast, and we made good time. We were surrounded most of the way to the lake by deep forested riverbanks. Foxes, eagles, kingfishers. It was a very pleasant section of river.

Soon enough, the river started slowing down as we approached the lake. The last week of paddling was showing – we were feeling tired as the river essentially transformed into a flat-water paddle. Interestingly, as we approached the entrance to the lake, there was some work being done…it almost looked like they were dredging the river mouth.

From the river mouth, we had to make a decision – risk the 1km open-water paddle straight across the lake, or take the safer route around the southern end of the lake, adding an extra 1 hour to the day. The wind wasn’t too strong, however, so we opted to paddle straight across.

The opposite side of the lake felt like a long way away, and our progress was imperceptibly slow. It certainly wasn’t glass smooth, and some of the swell got our hearts racing. Lake Abashiri is not a deep lake, but with the wind blowing from the north, there’s a solid 5km of fetch, allowing large waves to form at the southern end of the lake.

We kept at a 45-degree ferry angle to the wind, and kept the pressure on the paddles, effectively helping the wind help us on our way.

We eventually made it to the eastern side of the lake, and for a while were sheltered from the wind. As we rounded a headland, however, we were now beset with a strong northwester straight on the beam, the on-shore wind whipping up white-caps that were crashing parallel to the shore. We zig-zagged as much as we could into the swell and then back towards the shore, but it was hopelessly slow going.

We pushed on for about an hour against the wind before pulling the plug. We pulled up onto a sandy beach around here, and checked the map. Mercifully, there was a gravel road marked. It was only about 4km to Yobito Station, so we decided to attempt the rest of the route the next day.

We pulled the canoe through about 10m of undergrowth to the gravel road, stowed all the gear, and left on foot towards the station.

The gravel road didn’t look very well travelled, and the locked gate at the end of the road gave us the reason why. The walk of shame to the train station was long and sullen. Dark clouds brewed overhead. For the first time on a canoe trip here in Hokkaido, we’d been beaten. 

At least it was an easy way to pull the plug.

We took the train back to Abashiri City, picked up the car, and drove back to the Yobito Campground to stay an unplanned second night.

The morning broke uncannily clear and calm on the morning of our second day on the Abashiri River and Lake Abashiri. The first mission for this morning was to drive to Yobito Station and drop off our bicycles. From there, we drove back to Abashiri City, dropped off the car at the take-out point, walked to Abashiri Station, and caught the train to Yobito Station, where we cycled back to the canoe.

What a rigmarole.

But the canoe and all the gear was still where we’d left if the afternoon before.

Once we were back on the water, the lake was like a completely different world from the day before. It was mirror calm, and we made good time along the eastern shoreline. 

Eagles gazed at us as we paddled past, and Haidee enjoyed spotting small blue kingfishers.

Our early start today worked in our favour – by the time we rounded the point at the northern end of Yobito Peninsula, the midday winds were starting to pick up. We hurried on our way into the shelter of the last few kilometers of the river through Abashiri City, passing curious rowers along the way.

I imagined prisoners jumping the walls of the prison and hitching a ride with us to freedom. Haidee on the other hand wasn’t particularly enamored with the idea.

We were happy to see the end of our journey down the Abashiri River. We were tired. We’d been paddling at least two hours per day – sometimes longer – for the last 9 days solid. We were ready for a rest.

But first, we needed to drive back to the gravel road and pick up our bicycles.

Then, it was off to the Shokotsu River about 3 hours drive north, to paddle another river with Greg and Mari.

We were making hay while the sun shined…and it was indeed shining.

Comments | Queries | Reports

Done this route to Abashiri River, or other waterways nearby? Thinking of doing it? Please post any feedback, reports, or queries here. Thanks!

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Abashiri River Canoeing Difficulty Rating

Category

Grade

Points

Strenuousness

Vertical Gain

D

25

Time ascending

D

0

Technicality

Altitude

D

0

Hazards

D

Navigation

D

Totals

25/100

GRADES range from A (very difficult) to D (easy). Hazards include exposure to avalanche and fall risk. More details here. Rating rubric adapted from Hokkaido Yukiyama Guidebook 北海道雪山ガイド.