“How is it that we’ve never been here before,” remarked Haidee at the end of two inspiring days on Lake Shikaribetsu. I felt the same way. This was a gorgeous paradise of a place, even despite the drizzly wet weather of the first day, and low moody clouds of the second day. I’d been tantalizingly close to the lake on Day 6 of the Trans-Hokkaido Bikepacking Route Scouting Tour (story here) last year, but we’d carried on up the pass after being spat out onto Route 85 less than 1km from the northern end of the lake.
Of course, even then, we might not have been particularly impressed by the lake as seen from the northern campground. The true beauty of the lake is best enjoyed from on the water, and we got plenty of that this weekend. Ideally we’d have spent three days pottering around the lake, making full use of the three day weekend. However, I had a presentation to give at the Hokkaido FOSS4G conference on the Saturday (details | video).
So four of us set off from Sapporo early on Sunday morning in Chris’s car (thanks Chris) – Haidee, myself, Gerry, and Fabio the cyclist from Spain. Fabio was a last-minute addition to the team, after I posted a message on the Bicycle Touring, Hiking, and Friends in Japan Facebook group. Up till Fabio agreed to join, it would have been the three of us, with me in one canoe, and Haidee and Gerry in another. Not impossible, but less ideal for me if the wind picked up.
Including a grocery store stop, it was about four hours traveling from Sapporo to Lake Shikaribetsu. When we arrived, it was raining a light, wetting rain, just as the forecast had predicted. “I think we should still go,” said Haidee. We all had enough wet-weather gear (although a 500yen plastic poncho was procured for Fabio), and at least there was no wind.
It was more or less the first time canoeing for Gerry and Fabio. Over a quick lunch in the car, they did some reading up on how to paddle.
Time was getting on though, so we eventually dragged ourselves out of the car into the rain, and got our gear and canoes onto the water. Shikaribetsu Lake is obviously a popular place for canoeing – there were racks of canoes and kayaks at the put in location, and a convenient set of steps making the put in very easy. We parked the car up in the free parking in an area marked by a large ‘P’ sigh. Proceedings down at the launching area included a little bit more paddling tuition.
Despite the rain, it was really nice to get onto the water. The rain gave everything a gorgeous moody feel to it. This joy was interrupted somewhat as we cut across the Ni-no-wan (二の湾) bay just in front of the main village. One of the ferry dock workers yelled at us that we weren’t supposed to be canoeing in this area. This seemed strange to us, as the only way to get around the lake on the western shore was to cut across this bay. Later we double-checked with the Nature Center in the village. “The ojisan on the docks can get a bit feisty at times, but there’s no rules about not canoeing across that bay,” they told us.
Gerry and Fabio spent the first half-hour or so zig-zagging like crazy, but soon got the hang of paddling in a straight line. It was still raining. And it was still moodily beautiful.
Before long, we were approaching the only island on the lake, Benten-jima Island (弁天島). I’d been expecting something a little bit bigger, but this was a small dot on the lake, with just enough room for some trees, a torii gate, and a small shrine. We pulled up in the canoes, and took a look around. Did I say it was moody?
From the island, we were happy to have a nice tailwind all the way to the end of the lake.
I was quite apprehensive about this end of the lake. I knew there was a campground, and the campground guidebooks I’d read – even the most recent 2019 one – mentioned that it was possible to launch canoes from the campground. However, the Google Satellite image showed an impenetrable mess of driftwood. The big typhoons of 2017/2018 had really made things challenging, it seemed. Would we be able to get to where we needed to go? Below is what Google had for the area in July 2019.
In the end, it was hardly an issue. Many of the logs had either sunk or had been removed. We were able to gingerly paddle our way across the shallow water direct to the campground’s dilapidated landing area, and unload.
This was our first ever overnight canoe trip. On our overnight hiking, ski touring, and cycle touring trips, we spend quite a lot of time trying to limit weight and gear. With this canoeing malarkey, however, we were surprised at how much gear we could carry. We were happy we’d decided to include a tarp – it was a wet rainy evening. The campground had large covered kitchen areas, however, which were perfect for hanging up wet clothes and PFDs. Toilets were clean and smelled great…no showers of course, but that’s standard everywhere in Hokkaido. Overall a fantastic basic campground.
When the morning came around, the rain had stopped.
We scoffed down some breakfast and packed up, and were on the water by about 7:30am. The lake wasn’t mirror-calm, but beyond a slight headwind, it was a very nice paddle along the eastern shore of the lake. The plan for the day was to paddle along the eastern shore to the Shinonome Lake trail, and do that hike to the lake before completing the circumnavigation of the lake.
Before we got onto the lake, we did a quick paddle up the Yanbetsu River to see what we could see. We didn’t get very far before it all got too shallow, so back to the lake it was.
This northeastern end of the lake has a beautiful shoreline, with lots of low, exposed rock cliffs, dropping straight into the water. All of this enveloped in Hokkaido native forest. This side of the lake is within the Daisetsuzan National Park.
Gerry and Fabio were paddling straighter than ever, and were making great progress.
It was clearly duckling season – we saw quite a few ducks with their ducklings, all of them Merganser ducks.
“This is so much nicer without the rain,” said Gerry. She wasn’t wrong. It was chilly, maybe about 13 degrees Celsius, but there was little wind. Perfect.
After about an hour of paddling, we arrived at the large Otofuke Bay inlet (音更湾). This was where we’d park up the canoes and take a 30 minute walk to the Shinonome Lake. All along this shoreline, we’d heard the shrill squawks of pikas, and we were keen to see if we could see one of the elusive creatures.
I’d also read in one of the 1990’s canoe guidebooks that it was possible to canoe on this lake. “Hoist your canoe onto your shoulders and walk 30 minutes along a narrow track to the lake (緩い上りの細道をカヌーを担いで30分ほど歩く),” it wrote on p. 36 (玉田, 1993). I thought this was a great idea, so I hoisted one of the canoes onto my shoulders, and we proceeded to take turns to transport it 1km along a very narrow track, under and over fallen trees, to the lake.
WHICH IS NOT ALLOWED. Well, actually, there’s no rules against walking along a track with a canoe. It’s just that at present, there is no official access to the lake.
Once we got back to the Shikaribetsu Lake township, I dropped into the Nature Center to double check if canoeing on the Shinonome Lake is allowed. “Not any more,” was the answer. “There’s no official track down the lake now, and Daisetsuzan National Park rules dictate that hikers must not stray off the official tracks.“
So, for the sake of documentation, I’ll post the photos of this fruitless hour of lugging a 27kg canoe to a tiny pond and back, but I don’t recommend others do it. You’re not allowed to access the lake, and really, your effort walking along the trail would be better dedicated to trying to spot pikas. We’ll be back in the future, NOT carrying a canoe.
With the fruitless Lake Shinonome adventure behind us, it was time to carry on around the lake. By this time, any wind that we’d had previously had more or less disappeared.
We rounded a few more small bays, and passed a canoe tour group. I asked the friendly guide about Shinonome Lake too, and he confirmed that indeed, the lake is not accessible any more. “You can’t canoe on that lake,” was his reply. We carried on to a small sandy beach further around the shore, and pulled up for some lunch. Gerry was lamenting bringing so much bread on the trip. “I’ve eaten so much bread on this trip, I think I need to go on a bread fast when I get home,” she exclaimed.
Directly opposite the beach was the small Shikaribetsu Lake settlement. If we wanted, we could have canoed straight across for a quick finish. But we wanted to make the full circumnavigation, so pushed on.
At the very southern end of the lake, we once again came across a Merganser duck with her brood of ducklings. These little balls of fluff are too cute.
From the southern end of the lake, it was only a short distance along the rest of the shore to get back to our put in location. Once again a very light rain was starting to fall, so it was all hands on deck to get the canoes and gear up the slope to the roadside. We’d parked in the main parking area in the township, so Haidee ran ahead and got the car.
All up, this is definitely a place we’ll be coming back to for another overnight trip – an autumn overnight trip is definitely on the cards!