We’d been going back and forth with Saoka for a while now, trying to find a weekend to go camping where her schedule lined up with ours. Finally that weekend materialized, and we arranged to go camping somewhere. Then it transpired that Chris would be in Hokkaido on the same weekend. A clear, calm forecast for the weekend therefore dictated that we should get some canoes and do some day-tripping.
We rented two 16-foot Old Town Camper canoes from Guide House Canoa in Lake Shikotsu Village. As a rule, they don’t rent out canoes. Actually, apart from one fishing shop in Sapporo City (NorthCast), I don’t know of anywhere in Hokkaido that rents out canoes without guides. There were a couple of high-profile deaths involving inexperienced individuals in Hokkaido a few years back, where they’d rented open-top canoes and got into trouble in high winds. Since then companies have been less willing to rent out canoes. Haidee and I had, however, done Canoa’s Beginner and Intermediate paddling school, so they knew our abilities.
Chris’s years of experience strapping boats to car roof racks also came in handy. “Safe as houses,” he said as we drove away.
We wanted to make the most of the weekend, so we left Sapporo at around 5:30pm on Friday night. The original plan was to drive all the way to Lake Toya that night, but by the time we picked up the canoes from Canoa it was past 7pm. We changed plans and headed to Morappu Campground on the eastern end of Lake Shikotsu instead. By the time we’d got set up, it was well and truly dark.
The next day broke clear and calm though. It was going to be a great day out on the water.
This weekend was getting off to a very flexible start, so we decided to make the most of the fact we were already at Lake Shikotsu, and do a solid few hours on the water here before heading to Lake Toya for the evening. I had always wanted to explore the more remote northwestern end of the lake, so we packed up and drove around the lake to a put in location near Bifue Campground.
In 2011, Haidee and I along with a Cezary, a cyclist from Poland, managed to ‘cycle’ the Route 78 around this edge of the lake. Since then there has been multiple typhoons that have completely destroyed the road. Reports from other cyclists who have done the route since then have told of 50m steep scrambles down massive washouts to the lake-edge, only to have to drag their laden touring bicycles back up to the road again. From a canoeing perspective, this just makes this section of lake-shore even more attractive. With Route 78 being closed from the Lake Okotanpe lookout, far above the lake, this 15km-ish shoreline is really only accessible by boat.
At the putin location, we set about getting the canoes off the car, and into the water. This was the first time I’d visited this particular spot on Lake Shikotsu’s western side. We were surprised to see a number of fishing boats being put in in a separate area. For some reason I’d always assumed motorized boats were prohibited on Lake Shikotsu. A quick search on the web informed me that motorized boat access on Lake Shikotsu is indeed restricted, but is allowed upon registration (renewed annually). Motorized boats are mostly limited to vessels engaging in fishing. They’re also only allowed on the lake from June till August (more details in Japanese here).
It was a beautiful morning as we pushed off from the shore. Rounding the small cape at the mouth of the Chitose River (also marked at Bifue River), we saw a number of people fishing off the shore, so gave them a wide berth. The familiar Bifue Campground came into view soon – we’d camped there so many times on cycle trips, so it was nice to see it from another angle.
Beyond the campground, the shoreline was enveloped in deep, green forest. Surely this is the Shikotsu-Toya National Park at its very best. The water level of the lake was quite low when we were there. Usually it would be a solid 1m or so higher. This made for a nice sandy beach experience about 30 minutes into the trip.
At this point in the trip, we didn’t really have much of a plan as to how far we’d go. We were still testing the waters on how fast we could comfortably paddle these big Old Town Camper canoes we’d rented. We were making good time though (in the end, our average moving speed on the water was 4.8km/h), and the weather forecast was for calm settled weather for the rest of the day, so we tentatively set our sites on the derelict Okotan Campground, near the mouth of the wild Okotanpe River.
Beyond this sandy beach, the underwater scenery started getting really spectacular. As marked on the official topomap data, there are large underwater ledges and cliffs along this shoreline. With the water level so low, this allowed us to glide over these watery precipices, in about 20cm of water one moment, about 50m the next. Lake Shikotsu is Japan’s cleanest lake – like, actually number one for the last few years running – and it shows. With underwater visibility of anywhere between 10m and 30m (source), it is a mindbendingly clear lake.
Even Chris, a man who has spent more time on wild water than most people will spend in a lifetime, said in amazement “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lake this clear.”
Haidee, Chris and I are all from New Zealand (Saoka, the other member of this weekend’s team is from Japan), and we were genuinely take aback by this phenomenal clarity. You’d be hard-pressed to find a lake in New Zealand of this scale with such beautiful water.
And remember, this lake is a 40 minute drive from a city of 2 million people.
When Haidee and I did a canoe paddling course with Naoki from Canoa Guide House a few weeks back, he explained the cause of color changes in the water in Lake Shikotsu. “The water will change from blue to green when there’s lots of water or snow-melt,” he explained. “As the water runs off the surrounding caldera into the lake, it brings with it organic matter, which makes the lake green.”
According to this report about Lake Shikotsu’s color and clarity, it is the relative presence of Chlorophyll a that determines how green the water will look – i.e., the stuff that makes plants green.
That said, the lake has many faces, and one moment it looks emerald green, another it is back to it’s famous Shikotsu Blue.
We pushed on and eventually made it to just west of the Okotanpe River mouth. There was a gorgeous sandy beach with some shady trees. With the old road (Route 78) now impassible down to this section of shoreline, this may well be one of the most remote places in Hokkaido, only accessible by boat.
After a quick bite to eat for an early lunch, we set off on foot around the shore towards the derelict Okotan Campground. Along the way we came across three guys who had paddled across the night before, and were camped on the lake-front. We exchanged pleasantries and carried on.
There used to be quite the bustling lodge, bungalows, and campground here until around the early 2000’s. This blog post shows some photos of what it used to look like. However, in 2011 there was a massive mudslide that utterly devastated the entire lodge and campground. Just take a look at the Google Satellite images of the area. The campground was in the direct line of the destructive force of nature.
Suffice it to say that this is now a ghost-town of a location, with nature slowly but surely reclaiming its territory from the human invaders. We spent about 30 minutes wandering around the debris, soberly contemplating the demise of the place. Shirts were still hanging in wardrobes, photos hung on walls of proud fishermen holding their catches – the most recent dated 2003. Boxes of magazines – some belying the carnal proclivities of the time – were dated back to the 1980’s.
We returned to the canoes via an easy bush-bash along the other side of the Okotanpe River.
On the return to Bifue, we opted to cut across the open water direct to the Bifue Campground, to save us about 3km of paddling (about 45 minutes). We were two boats, it was a beautiful day with the entire lake like glass, plus the weather forecast was indicating it to stay that way till the next morning, so we decided it was worth the risk.
We made good time, and were off the water by 12:30pm. Masses of time to load the canoes back onto the van and head to Lake Toya for the night, via Horohoro Sanso for a great onsen soak.
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