“I almost called everyone to cancel the trip,” mused Naoki, owner and operator of Guide House Canoa. “The water level is just below the flood control standby, but it’s holding steady. It’ll be exciting, but we’ll be OK,” he said.
We were a group of about seven canoes and one stand up paddle board, all previous ‘students’ of Guide House Canoa’s paddling school. Naoki organizes trips like this a few times a year. It just so happened that this trip coincided with heavy rain across southern Hokkaido. It would be some of the biggest water Haidee and I had ever paddled, so we were happy to be doing so under the watchful eye of two of Hokkaido’s most experienced Canadian canoe guides, as well as a troupe of much more experience paddlers that us.
We all met up at the Hobetsu-bashi Bridge in Hobetsu Town. Naoki expertly stacked the canoes on his van. One of the participants in today’s trip proudly showed off his most recent purchase – a mini e-bike he plans to use for shuttling.
After some test rides, we headed off. We arrived at the put-in not long after.
In his usual calm, contemplative manner, Naoki gazed at the river. “Let me go take a look,” he said, and he paddled off towards a large wave-train next to a large boulder sticking up out of the river.
“I’ve never seen a wave train like that in that spot before,” said one of the other paddlers, who had paddled the Mukawa a number of times.
Naoki deftly ferried across the river and sent his 16ft canoe down the wave train, hardly taking on any water at all.
Soon it was our turn to upstream ferry across the river, plant a strong draw, and head into the wave train. The power and heft of the torrent was unnerving. The adrenaline was pumping. This was the biggest water we’d paddled since taking up canoeing five months earlier. We eddied in behind the massive block of granite, and Naoki gave us some pointers.
After a few more turns at ferrying, eddying in, and eddying out, we all started downstream. The river was wall-to-wall flow, with no eddies on the shoreline. A very light, misty rain was falling.
We’d already spent quite a lot of time doing drills on the wave train, so by the time we arrived at a nice gravel bar, it was time to fire up the gas cooker to cook up some lunch. Hearty soba noodle soup was on the menu.
Playtime over, we started in earnest downriver, being pushed along quickly by the torrent.
At around the 10km point, Naoki zoomed in on a bedrock feature around here, normally quite benign at usual water levels. Today, it was a great boiling wall of a wave, approaching 1m in depth from the bottom of the trough to the top of the wave downstream. Naoki took his canoe in sideways, and promptly disappeared for a moment, only to reappear, still upright, the inside of his canoe still dry. He had a go on a stand up paddle board too, with less resounding success.
Others joined in on the fun, with most coming out unscathed – only a few capsized, to be thrown rescue lines not too far downstream.
Haidee and I weren’t game to take on the wave together in our canoe.
Naoki motioned to me to get into his canoe. “You’ve never capsized?” he asked. “This might be your first time,” he joked.
I jumped in the front seat but he told me to get on my knees in the very center of the canoe. We paddled towards the wave. It was slightly mind-bending, seeing the drop in front of us. As we paddled upstream over the wave, I saw the bow of the canoe drop. The very top of the canoe dipped for a moment under the water. Naoki swung the canoe sideways. I had no idea what I should do, and the rest was a blur. Somehow, Naoki had kept us upright.
Later, a photo that Haidee took revealed how completely hapless I had been as a co-paddler with Naoki. While he was doing a commendable job leaning the canoe away from the current, I was sat there upright in the canoe, paddle waving helplessly in the air.
After almost an hour of playing in the wave in this particular spot, we were all starting to feel the cold. We carried on along to Toyota-bashi Bridge, took out, and the day was over.
For Haidee and I, this was a really valuable day out on the water, in conditions we’d not yet experienced. It boosted our confidence in big water. This was a good thing, because we were, in fact, on our way to the Kushiro River for a four day self-guided paddle from Lake Kussharo to the sea. We thanked Naoki and the others, and went on our way east.