We’d all camped the previous night at the quiet Saru-gawa Auto Campground, after running a lower section of the river the day before. Greg and Mari were in their double canoe, and Taku was paddling his canoe solo.
The morning started subdued and overcast, a heavy dew over our tents.
There was no small amount of excitement when we saw the river in the morning. It was considerably higher than the day before. We were going to be in for an exciting paddle. We dropped off the canoes at the put in, and headed off to do the shuttle. On the way, we stopped at the Mitsuoka-bashi Bridge to have a look at the crux of the day’s route – the Mitsuoka Drop. From our vantage point high above the canyon, it looked relatively runnable, but we’d need to scout it from the river too.
We dropped the cars off at the takeout, and headed back to the put in.
It was a bit of a scramble to get down to the river from our parking spot at the put in, but the slick rocks on the manmade banks made things easier. Suited up in our drysuits, the only thing left to do now was to get onto the water.
We were all feeling more than a little nervous with what lay up ahead.
Right off the bat, we were paddling a tricky-looking set of rapids. In reality, the flow of the river kept us in the right place though, so it ended up just being a fun warm-up for what would come later.
The autumn colors were just starting to reach their peak. Mellow sections of river between the rapids allowed us time to breathe and take in the scenery.
The photo above would be one of the last I would take from the water on my big camera. From here on in, the big camera (Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mk2 plus 7-14mm and 40-150mm lenses) got stowed away securely in its Pelican case (1400 case) for the rest of the time we were on the water. Just as well too – we would spend a lot of time bailing water, despite having our spray deck on the canoe.
The first substantial rapid/wave-train came soon after I took the photo above. It was a long Class 2 rapid culminating in a Class 2+ wavetrain. All the while Haidee and I were trying not to gain too much ground on Taku in his solo canoe.
This rapid well and truly set the stage for the rest of the trip.
And just like that, we passed through the regal ‘gates’ to the Saru River Gorge. It was a peaceful transition to arguably the jewel in the Saru River’s river-running crown.
The more experienced boat in the team – Greg and Mari – took the lead for the rest of the way. This took the edge off things for Haidee and me. Taku seemed to be holding his own in his solo boat.
Adding somewhat to the excitement of the trip was a timing deadline for Greg and Mari. They needed to be off the water by 2pm at the latest, in order to get back to Sapporo for a 7pm work commitment.
The route for the day was only 8km long, but we were spending plenty of time scouting lines on some of the more tricky-looking sections. The rock garden soon after entering the gorge was one spot that took up a lot of time.
“Surely we enter from the right and stay right,” most of us were saying as we walked towards the rapid on the shoreline.
“Oh wait,” said Greg as we got another look at the rapid from further downstream. “The right is looking pretty boney from this angle, so maybe we need to enter at the center,” he opined.
We were soon mostly in agreement that a center entry was the best course of action. Beyond that, however, it was difficult to decide whether to head left or right.
“The left looks like it’s where the water wants us to go,” I suggested.
“The right looks like more water though,” said Haidee.
“That flow-over rock in the middle looks tricky,” proffered Taku.
In the end, we all agreed on a central line, with a last-minute slide to the river right, keeping as close to the left of the flow-over rock as possible. It was a tight line.
“There’s always a line!” declared Greg, beaming.
Greg and Mari went first, and ended up a bit more center at the end than they’d planned, sliding over some rather sparsely-covered rocks at the end.
Haidee and I went next. Our line worked as we’d hoped, and we managed to get to the river right without too much drama. See that line below.
Taku brought up the rear, and nailed the line perfectly. The elation we all felt after so much analysis was clear on his face.
The Class 2+ rapids didn’t let up though. They were punctuated by sections of calmer water, but they were all decent enough to require frequent bailing out of water.
Haidee and I were jealous once again of the others’ three-layer plastic boats. We hit a number of ledges along the way, resulting in what we’d later find was quite substantial damage to the stern of our tough but stiff and crack-able composite canoe.
The mighty Novacraft Prospector 16 (in TuffStuff regular layup) is a great canoe to paddle though. Despite the rather wonky-looking frame-grabs below, we never capsized on this trip.
Arguably the spray deck saved our bacon a number of times though, not least of which when we paddled to the must-make eddy above the crux of the route, the Mitsuoka Drop. Greg and Mari had already pulled up well above the drop, after the first wave-train.
“We were already almost swamped,” explained Greg. “We had to grab this eddy before we ended up going over that drop sight unseen!”
With us all pulled up well above the drop, we wandered down to the drop to take a look. Up to this point, our scouting from far above on the bridge suggested we might be OK to run the drop. Many canoeists do indeed run it, so we were thinking we’d be fine.
One look at the drop from close up, however, put to rest any ideas of running it today.
“That’s an instant flip,” mused Greg.
It was a roaring mess of a drop, with a number of opposing, jet-like currents pushing up, left, right. Gnarly granite on either side of the torrent seemed to beckon the impacts of hapless paddlers’ heads upon them.
The next weekend, Hokkaido Wilderness Canoe Club – infamous in Hokkaido for running Hokkaido’s gnarliest waterways – paddled this same section of the Saru, and only one paddler in their 20-strong group was game enough to try it.
“Usually with this water level, most paddlers would run it,” wrote Takahashi-san. “Today, it seems as though something has changed – the drop looks much gnarlier than previously.”
Below is some footage of that day from Takahashi-san, of the one lone paddler game to hit the drop.
We opted to portage the drop, lining our canoes down the rapids.
“We really need to get out of here without incident,” Mari wisely reminded us all. “We have a deadline to meet!”
Beyond the Mitsuoka Drop, the river did not let up, neither in excitement nor in beauty. The gorge just kept delivering.
Like all good things, however, the paddling had to come to an end. Timing was good too – just before 1pm. Plenty of time for Greg and Mari to whisk themselves back to Sapporo.
We decided that next time, we’d take it a little easier. And a next time there will be! A new favourite paddling spot for all of us.
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