Haidee and I had just finished an 8-day trek along the Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse and were keen to decompress by hitting some of the rivers in central Hokkaido. For a long time we had intended to paddle the Chubetsu River, and we’d heard good things about the Biei River too.
As it happens, with some associates, HokkaidoWilds.org author Chris had recently acquired an old house in Biei, apparently to eventually become part of the StayNorth (website still under construction) network of Hokkaido accommodation. The cabin was very much under renovation at the time, but to our surprise, it was about a 2-minute walk from a common put-in point on the Biei River. Talk about location perfection.
“If you don’t mind a lack of hot water and a bit of mess,” said Elsie, the manager of the renovation, “you’re welcome to stay.”
We promptly availed ourselves of the invitation and stayed for a few nights so we could thoroughly examine the paddling offerings in the area.
First on the list was, of course, the Biei River. We didn’t have our Canadian canoe for this trip but did pack our double packraft (the mighty MRS Barracuda R2 Pro). So we packed all our stuff into a couple of large backpacks and wandered down from the cabin to the river via the deserted park golf course.
Ideally we would have put in on the river right side of the river, but the river left was doable at this water level. The Nishikagura gauge, about 20km downstream, was showing 134.51m. Ideally it would have been nice to have at least an extra 10cm or so, but in the bouncy packraft, a little bit of scraping on the river bottom was going to be OK.
We opted to put in just upstream of the Midori-bashi Bridge, because there was a fun looking rapid just under the bridge. It was a nice way to start our jaunt down the Biei. The classic Biei Blue was visible in the water – the Biei River is well known for its beautiful blue color.
From there it was relatively smooth sailing until the weir at the 10km point. Plenty of bends in the river kept things interesting and a couple of downed trees across the river kept us on our toes. There were frequent Class 2 rapids, but at this water level they all felt pretty benign.
We had scouted the 10km-point weir the day before, so knew what to expect. We had debated whether it would be better to portage around the right side through the forest, rather than clamber up the high concrete bank on the left. From the water, however, we figured it would be easier to sneak into the small water intake area and just climb down on the left. At higher water levels this wouldn’t be feasible, but it worked for us.
We were now in the boulder garden zone. Greg had warned us about this. “The boulder gardens can be challenging at low water levels,” he said.
Of course, he had paddled the river in a Canadian canoe…we were in the packraft, which is much more forgiving. It almost felt like cheating. We zigzagged and slid through gaps, turning on a dime…clean line? What’s a clean line?
The second weir of the route was the one that’s usually open. It’s only closed earlier in the summer when the rice fields are being irrigated. We found it to be open in August when we were there, and could just paddle straight through. The concrete block drop just after the weir, however, was a different story. We pulled up on the river left to scout it. After some deliberation, it seemed clear that we’d be able to run it just left of center. Or perhaps just left of left of center. Either way, it was next to impossible to actually see the gap from the water when in the packraft. We’d need to line things up and hope for the best.
Indeed, we held our breath, and only at the very last minute we realized that we were right on target, and would not be sending the packraft across sharp, jagged concrete blocks. “Manmade monstrosities of the Hokkaido wilds,” Chris calls this sort of inexplicable intrusion on the riverscape in Hokkaido.
This wasn’t the only spot with inexplicable intrusions. A few km upstream of the second weir were two concrete-block weir-like obstructions. Both were runnable – the first on the hard left, and the second on the hard right. For a moment we allowed us the absurd thought that perhaps the designers of these monstrosities had spared a thought for river users.
The river continued to be dotted with small swifts and rapids, nothing much above Class 2. Personally, I was a little bit bored by the end of the route. A little more water in the river would have made things a bit more exciting perhaps. Also, we’d been plagued somewhat by a distinct greywater smell for much of the paddle since Biei Town. Perhaps the lack of rain recently was contributing to less dilution, as Greg and Mari don’t recall the river having that smell when they paddled it.
There was, however, one last bit of excitement just before Nishikagura, our take-out point for the day. A 300m long boulder garden followed by a very nice double wavetrain. I sent the drone up for some aerial shots.
The beauty of the Biei River partly lies in its accessibility. We took out at the Shinkai-bashi Bridge near Nishikagura, and walked the 15 minutes or so from the river to the train station, and were back in Biei in no time. The beauty of a packraft and a good train line system!
Back at Biei train station, we took the lazy option and forked out 700yen for a taxi ride back to the StayNorth cabin.
With the Biei River ticked off the list, we started planning for a paddle down the more wild and rowdy Chubetsu River the next day…