Haidee and I had just spent close to a week working remotely from a small cabin on the shores of Lake Furen in far eastern Hokkaido. We now had a few days of long weekend, so made a plan to start heading north towards Shokotsu River, where we’d meet Greg and Mari for a trip down that river.
On the way, we planned to paddle the Shibetsu River and Abashiri River. Today the Shiribetsu River was on the plan.
Right from the time we left Lake Furen, it was a dingy, dark sort of a day. When arrived at the turn-off to the Shibetsu River put in in Nakashibetsu Town, we raised our eyebrows. The road was quite overgrown. We pressed forwards, and were relieved that the put in itself was relatively clear and there was room to turn the car around.
We dropped the canoe, paddles, and life-jackets off, and headed back down river to the take-out. When we arrived at the river mouth, I had a sudden realization that our bus to get us back to Nakashibetsu was due to arrive at the bus stop nearby in only 5 minutes time. We rushed to get everything together, and as a light rain was starting to fall, we made it to the bus stop. As we were catching our breath after the five minute run, I noticed the times indicated on the bus stop timetable were slightly different to what I’d seen on the Internet – we had another 15 minutes until the bus was due to arrive.
With only a few buses per day, we felt like we had a lucky save. We were well on time to catch the 7:34am bus…it was an early start to the day!
The bus was mostly empty, and the 40 minute trip to the Nakashibetsu bus terminal was pleasant and uneventful. We called a taxi and directed the driver to the turn off to the put in. Just as he was dropping us off at the side of the road, the skies opened and we were pelted with torrential rain.
“Are you sure you’re OK to be dropped off here?” asked the kind taxi driver. We said yes, and he waved goodbye.
With rain jackets on, we trudged down the access road in pouring rain. There was a certain kind of beauty to it all though.
At the put in, Haidee sensibly started changing into her drysuit. It wasn’t terribly cold, but she was right – the seals would keep us dry better than rain jackets where water could seep through gaps.
As soon as we got on the water, it was all hands on deck. The river was flowing quite fast, and it was very bendy. Downed trees kept us on our knees as we weaved and wended out way down the river.
Despite paddling through a bustling town, however, on the river it felt like we were paddling some sort of jungle river, with deep forest on both sides. So far, the river was very picturesque. There were kingfishers and storks. It felt like the river wasn’t deserving of the bad press – we’d seen guidebooks lamenting at the state of the river.
Further down, however, we started to see why the river might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
First was treated grey water flowing into the river just beyond Nakashibetsu Town. Stale dishwater is how I’d describe it. Smelly. Not pleasant. This aroma stayed with us for most of the remainder of the route. Perhaps it was because there was extra rain today.
The birds didn’t seem to be bothered by it, however. There was still plenty of birdlife to keep birdwatcher-Haidee content.
We soon came up on the first of the two weirs. The guidebook suggested portaging around the left side. This wasn’t impossible. But I can see how some people might seriously struggle to get themselves plus a canoe up the bank. It felt like a wall of steep grass. Underfoot, just at the water’s edge, was ankle-deep mud covering a steep concrete riverbank underneath. I’d rate it as one of the worst portage access points I’ve experienced in Hokkaido. Not impossible. But quite the scramble.
The return to the river below the weirs was not quite as horrific, and by the time we arrived at the second weir, at least we knew what to expect.
Beyond the weirs, we just had to keep paddling. There weren’t any rapids to speak of, but the river was flowing at a good clip, so we made good time to the river-wide fishing installation. This was a bit of a head-scratcher regarding what side of the river to portage on. On the river right, the banks were tall concrete walls. On the left, there was a wall of loose fine gravel. We settled on the latter. I had to stand on my paddle to avoid sinking into the sinking-sand-like bank.
The Shibetsu River was getting us re-acquainted with Hokkaido’s tendency towards river obstructions built with no thought to whether people might want to travel said river.
We portaged around the salmon fishing installation, and got back onto the river. It was still raining. But spirits were relatively high. It wasn’t long till we’d see the sea.
Sure enough, after only a few more kilometers, we arrived at the compact river mouth. We pulled up and basked in the accomplishment of making it to the sea.
And then hurried to get the car so we could change into dry clothes and warm up. Despite being late July, it was a chilly, damp day.
Would we ever paddle the Shibetsu River again? We were doubtful that we’d paddle the lower section with the weirs again. But further upstream, further than were we’d put in, might have potential….