Sarobetsu River plus Panke and Penke Lakes

サロベツ川 | Sar-o-pet

Posted on Oct 20, 2021
99 0

Posted on Oct 20, 2021

99 0


1 day(s)


0.1 mpk



Water clarity

Class I



Best season





Sarobetsu River サロベツ川 is a slow-flowing wetland river in the far north of Hokkaido, not far from Hokkaido's northern-most city of Wakkanai. It flows through the mainland section of the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park, and is home to migratory geese, cranes and storks, and all number of ducks and other birds. The flow in the river is gentle enough that it's feasible to paddle upstream, without the need for lengthy shuttling. Paddle along the river to the lakes to get some majestic views of Rishiri Island off the coast if the weather is clear.

We visited this route on Sep 18, 2021


Route Map

Need to know details

Grade: I
Remoteness: 4/5

River Details

This route is on Sarobetsu River (サロベツ川), or Sar-o-pet in the Ainu indigenous language. The river is a Class A (一級河川) river, 85km in total length. This section of the river is between 46m and 11m wide. The gradient for this section of river is 0.1 mpk (0.53 FPM).

Weather: weather forecast for Sarobetsu River

Water level notes: Being a wetland river, the Sarobetsu-gawa has plenty of water throughout the paddling season.

Sarobetsu-gawa is a wetland river snaking its way through the expansive Sarobetsu Plains at the far northwest of Hokkaido, not far from Wakkanai, Hokkaido’s northernmost city.

Put-in Location: Google Maps

If starting and finishing at the same place (as we did on our trip), paddlers can put in at the Otonrui-bashi Bridge 音類橋. There’s a small boat mooring platform and ramp on the western side of the river. If you’ve got two cars, then we’ve heard it’s possible to put in at the Kaiun-bashi Bridge 開運橋 upstream (parking area here) and take out downstream at Otonrui-bashi Bridge. That would still make it about a 20km trip, but there’d be less upstream paddling.

Take-out Location: Google Maps

The takeout location is the same as the put-in. That is, you’ll paddle upstream against the flow (it’s a very marginal flow, if any at all), and then return the same way.

General notes

Here we outline a there-and-back-again option for this Sarobetsu River paddling route, starting downstream (south), paddling upstream (north), and finishing back downstream (south) again. Some guidebooks (see below) recommend starting upstream at the Kaiun-bashi Bridge and paddling downstream to Otonrui-bashi Bridge. This requires shuttling though, and there really isn’t much of a flow in the river to speak of, so we figure it’s just easier all around to start and finish in the same place.

  • Birdlife: In spring and autumn, Penke-to Lake is home to tens of thousands of migratory geese. If you do paddle up to take a look, only paddle to the edge of the lake (where the creek enters the lake) and no further, to avoid disturbing the birds too much.
Route description

Put in on either the left or right side, upstream or downstream of the Otonrui-bashi Bridge. Paddle about 3.5km upstream, and you’ll come to a fork in the river. Head east (right as you paddle upstream) and it’s a short 500m paddle to the expansive Panke-numa lake. At its deepest, the lake is only about 1.5m deep, averaging about 70cm. To get to Penke-to lake, it’s another 6.5km paddle upstream – 4km on Sarobetsu River proper, and about 2.5km on the narrower Shitaebekorobetsu River to the lake. Take care not to disturb migratory birds. In either case, Penke-to lake is even shallower than Panke-numa lake, so there’s not really much area to paddle – just a lot of bird-watching to be had. On the return, it’s now downstream paddling, so you’ll get perhaps an extra 1km/h in speed, and a little less effort. Unless, of course, you’ve got a headwind. In this case, it’ll feel more or less like paddling on flat water.

Route Timing
Trip time: 6hrs 0min

If planning on paddling all the way to Penke-to lake, paddlers need to be prepared for a solid full day of paddling – between 5 and 6 hours is best, to allow for breaks, changes in wind direction and strength, and paddling against the (marginal) flow on the way upstream.


Public transport:

There is no public transport to this route.

By car: 

There’s room for a couple of cars to park at the boat docks under Otonrui-bashi Bridge, here. Make sure to park well to the side of any access roads, and take care not to block access to the boat docks.

Physical maps
Official Topo Map: Wakkasakanai (稚咲内) – map no. NL-54-17-6-2

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

As far as actual river and open-water lake-related hazards go, this route is quite safe. It is, however, extremely remote. Any over-land escape attempt would involve a very arduous bush-bash through towering reeds, with multiple boggy patches along the way. It’s best to assume the only escape is via the river. Hence, paddlers need to be very self-reliant and carry some form of communications (there is good mobile reception throughout the route).

Weather forecast weather forecast for Sarobetsu River


Onsen nearby

We recommend driving the 20 minutes south back to Teshio, and have a soak in the Teshio Onsen 天塩温泉 (location, 600yen) with a great view of the coast. The hot springs are extremely salty – quite unique. There’s a campground nearby (Kagaminuma Campground 鏡沼キャンプ場), and the onsen itself has hotel rooms available.

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Route Trip Notes description of the route (translated)

This river winds it way through the Shimo-sarobetsu Moor. There’s hardly any flow, so even complete beginner paddlers will feel comfortable paddling this river. The one thing to be cautious about, however, is that once you leave the put-in at Otonrui-bashi Bridge, there’s nowhere to get off the river once you’re on the river. I really recommend this as a place to easily experience canoeing in a wetland.

The Sarobetsu wetlands had been on our list of places to paddle in Hokkaido for a while. But being way up north in Hokkaido, it always felt like a bit far to go, particularly just for a weekend. From Sapporo, it’s a solid 4hr drive north. But in the name of exploration, we committed to it on a late summer weekend, leaving Sapporo early on a Friday evening. We drove half of the distance that night, arriving at the incongruous Ogon-zaki Campground 黄金崎キャンプ場 (location) in Rumoi City at 7pm. This rather unusual campground is run by the Rumoi City council, free for overnight stays. It’s basically just a raised grass strip next to a quiet seaside access road. Seems to be popular among touring motorcyclists. There’s a block of clean public toilets, and a covered kitchen/water area.

Our paddling friends Saoka and Akiko arrived at around 10pm that night, after we’d turned in for the night. In the morning we all sat on the concrete steps and scoffed down some breakfast while admiring the ocean view. We then packed up and headed on our way for the remaining 2 hours drive north.

Due to a bit of a lack of planning on my part, we messed up the start location, putting in at the boardwalk on the eastern side of Panke-numa Lake (rather than the easier and more convenient Otonrui-bashi Bridge), but eventually we made it across the lake to Sarobetsu River.

Once we were on the river proper, we had to come to grips with the reality of paddling a wetland river. The banks were high. They were lined with impenetrable reeds. There wasn’t much of a view to speak of.

There was a lot of sign of deer though. Hoof marks at small clearings in the reeds at the side of the river. Every now and then we’d hear rustling in the reeds and grass. Deer bounding away from the river. To our delight there was an abundance of small blue kingfishers darting around the edges of the river. At other times we’d spy skittish ducks and other birds fly off far down the river.

Here and there, the endless reeds were broken up by sections of tall oak trees. 

Paddling upstream, it felt like a long way to the small creek connecting Panke-to Lake to Sarobetsu River proper. Saoka and Akiko were doing commendably well. They were still relative canoeing beginners.

We made it to the fork, and continued paddling upstream. We knew from the satellite images that there wasn’t much water to be expected in Panke-to Lake. Would it actually be worth paddling all this way to a dry lake? We certainly didn’t know for sure.

And then suddenly we were there. The small creek gave way to broadening skies. 

“What’s that sound?” Haidee asked. “I think it might be geese,” she continued, excitedly.

Indeed, we could hear the unmistakable chatter of geese.

We rounded a small bend, and we caught a glimpse of a couple of geese, gawking back at us.

Of course, as soon as they saw us, they took off, setting off a tidal wave of geese, all launching off, flying deeper into the lake.

Once the rawkus died down, and the geese settled down further into the lake, we finally noticed Rishiri-zan. Amazingly, the off-shore volcano was standing clear in the distance.

We didn’t dare paddle further into the lake, since we’d already disturbed the migratory geese. We also knew we had about 10km to paddle back to our put-in. So we got going. Back to the walls of  reeds and shady trees.

Part way back, I sent the drone up to see what we could see again from above. By now, Rishiri had lost much of her coat of clouds, and was there on the horizon as clear as we’d ever seen her.

We paddled a bit more on the larger of the lakes – Panke-numa Lake – and watched as some boats washed sand into the lake. We’re not 100% sure what they were doing, but assumed they were returning sand to the lake that had been removed in order to harvest shellfish. It was all rather atmospheric with Rishiri in the background.

Once we finally got off the water, we’d been out for almost 6 hours. We’d started early in the day though, so we still had plenty of daylight left. We debated a couple of options for that night’s accommodation, and in the end decided to head to Teshio-gawa Onsen, on the Teshio River. A plan was hatched to stay at the free campground behind the hot springs, and paddle a short section of the mighty Teshio River on Sunday before heading back to Sapporo.

Comments | Queries | Reports

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Sarobetsu River plus Panke and Penke Lakes Difficulty Rating





Vertical Gain



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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.