Tobetsu River Canoeing

当別川 | To-pet

Posted on Jun 30, 2020
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Posted on Jun 30, 2020

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Reading time: 5 min
12.6km

Distance

0.5 day(s)

Time

3.36 mpk

Gradient

3/5

Water clarity

Class II

Difficulty

Apr-Jun

Best season

Tobetsu River (当別川) flows through a forgotten forested wonderland just one hour's drive north of Sapporo City. The single quiet road through the valley is popular on the weekends with motorcyclists and people escaping the city for a spot of greenery in their lives. The river is another universe removed again from an already slow-paced paradise. Expect gorgeous bed-rock riverbeds, white-tailed eagles, native deer, and plenty of fish. Best run in spring, and rarely with enough water in summer, this is a half- to full-day route for early in the season.

We visited this route on Jun 21, 2020

Last updated Jul 29, 2020

Route Map

Need to know details

Difficulty

Overall difficulty: Intermediate (6/10)

Remoteness: 3/5
Number of portages: 1
Longest portage: 10m
Total portage distance: 10m
Overall portage difficulty: 2/5

River Details

This route is on Tobetsu River (当別川), or To-pet in the Ainu indigenous language. The river is a Class A (一級河川) river, 72.5km in total length. This section of the river is between 15m and 40m wide. The gradient for this section of river is 3.36 mpk (17.74 FPM).

Weather: Windy.com weather forecast for Tobetsu River

Current water level: 4.18m and stable. No river level warnings issued. Last updated 2020/9/19 21:10 (Source).

Ideal water level: 4.10m
Water level paddled 3.90m
Water level notes: These water levels are actually from the nearby Atsuta River, so while they may be a reasonable indicator of river levels in general in the area, they should be taken with a large grain of salt. The Tobetsu River does have water level measurement stations, but they’re all downstream of the Tobetsu Dam, rendering them very unreliable indicators of actual conditions upstream of the dam.
Location

Tobetsu River flows through the gorgeous rural town of Tobetsu, one valley across from the Sea of Japan on the Rumoi Coast. It’s about one hour drive north from Sapporo City.

  • Put-in: There’s a convenient put-in location about 15km north of the northern end of Tobetsu Lake, here. Just up the road is a small parking area (here).
  • Take-out: The usual take-out for this route is a convenient spot just upstream of the Kaiun-bashi Bridge, here. We’d entertained the idea of paddling all the way to the lake, as there appeared to be a feasible take-out location at the northwestern corner of the lake, around here. From there it would be a 200m portage to the gravel road. In the end, we took the path of least resistance and took out at the Kaiun-bashi Bridge, as we looked longingly down the deep-forested remaining section of river to the lake…
  • Shuttling: As mentioned in the Transport section below, there’s nothing but forest north of the Tobetsu Dam. This makes for a gorgeous bicycle shuttle between the take-out and put-in – one of the most pleasant bicycle shuttles we’ve done in Hokkaido.

General notes

It’s difficult to describe the hopelessly pleasant vibe that Tobetsu Town gives off. Particularly this area north of the dam, it feels like a forgotten, left-to-nature area, teeming with wildlife. With very few stand-out mountains to climb in the vicinity, it doesn’t feature much on outdoor types’ radars. But we were amazed at the number of white-tailed eagles we saw along the way. We also saw Hokkaido native ezo deer, a not-so-native raccoon, and plenty of fish in the clear water.

  • Water level: If the Atsuta-gawa Measurement Station on the nearby Atsuta River is showing 4.10m or more, then I’d be confident that the Tobetsu River would have a good flow. When we ran the Tobetsu River in late June 2020, this station had a reading of 3.90m, and we struggled a bit with low water. Paddlers will see the best water levels during the spring melt (April to early June). In late June, we were bottoming out regularly, and had to line about 5% of the route. The Tobetsu River has it’s own water measurement stations, but they’re below the Tobetsu Dam. The dam may be letting more or less water out on any given day, so those water level stations don’t give a good representation of what is going on above the dam. Just for reference, the Kabato Station on the Tobetsu River (below the Tobetsu Dam) was showing 8.20m when we visited the river in late June 2020.
Route description

Start from the put-in about 5m upstream of the old concrete bridge. Soon after, there’s a hard-left bend in the river, with some branches across the right side. Watch out for wildlife in the first 2-3km of the route – we saw most of the wildlife in this first few kilometres. At around the 4km point, there’s a bend with flakey sandstone banks on the right. This is where people have reported finding fossils. I had a quick forage and found a piece of an old spiral shell. From here, all the way to the take-out, it pays to be careful of some pushy waves caused by the bedrock on the bottom of the river, and on ledges. At the 10km point, there’s an old broken concrete weir, followed by a canoe-eating, blocky area. We’ve seen reports that this is runnable in some water levels. Scout this spot from the bridge in advance of setting off. We had to portage around this on the left side – tricky but safe and doable. Beyond this crux point on the route, it’s all very straight forward.

Route Timing
Trip time: 3hrs 0min

This section of the Tobetsu River is too hopelessly beautiful to power through without stopping and admiring things along the way. We spent just over three hours on the river, enjoying the journey.

Transport

Public transport:

There is no public transport to/from this route. Given the lack of towns and/or tourist attractions nearby, getting a taxi may also be a challenge. The nearest taxi company would be Tobetsu Hokusei Hire (ホクセイハイヤー, TEL: 0120-913-890).

By car: 

There is easy parking for up to 10 cars in the vicinity of the put in as well as the take-out.

Physical maps
Official Topo Map: Niban-gawa (二番川) – map no. NK-54-13-8-3
Official Topo Map 2: Aoyamachuo (青山中央) – map no. NK-54-13-8-4

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

This route is enveloped by deep forest on all sides, so watch for river-wide strainers – we only noticed one large strainer when we did the route, but we were able to give it a wide berth on the other side of the river. Also take care at the old broken concrete weir. We were able to eddy-in behind the remaining concrete wall and complete the portage, but it’s overall just tricky and convoluted – scout this from the bridge on the main road before hitting the water.

Weather forecast

Windy.com weather forecast for Tobetsu River

CampSites

None
Onsen nearby

Tsukigata Onsen Yurikago (月形温泉ゆりかご, location, 550yen) is the closest onsen – just over the hills to the east from the Tobetsu Dam. There’s a campground next to the onsen too, where you can stay for 200yen per person (bungalows also available).

Extra Resources

See HokkaiCamp’s writeup of this section of the Tobetsu River, here.

Show Full Route Notes Close Route Notes

Route Trip Notes

HokkaiCamp.com description of the route (translated)

With the completion of the Tobetsu Dam in 2012, the previously canoe-able section is now almost completely submerged. However, it’s possible to enjoy a nice 12km down-river run by heading much further upstream. However, this section is runnable only in the spring melt season. And speaking of spring, that’s the time for wild mountain vegetable foraging, which is probably what most people canoe this route for. This area is known for fossil-hunting too, so looking for fossils as one descends the river in lower water levels is also a fun way to pass the time.

We only had one day to spare, and were keen on checking out a new river section we’d not done before. While there’s a great long list of river sections all over Hokkaido we’re still to check out, we were limited in how far we could travel – we were in Sapporo, and were not keen for a majorly long drive. A quick look at the wonder that is HokkaiCamp.com suggested Tobetsu River – only one hour drive from Sapporo City, might be worth a look. The folk at HokkaiCamp.com had run it in 8.15m as measured at the Kabato Measurement Station, and today this measurement station was showing 8.20m. Ever being the optimist, I dismissed HokkaiCamp’s admonitions that this measurement station was downstream from the Tobetsu Dam, so really can’t be relied on much for an accurate indication of the water level above the dam.

In the end, while the water level was not completely untenable, it was certainly a little lower than we would have preferred. The small amount of river walking we had to do, however, was perfectly pleasant. 

We drove straight to the put in, and dropped off the canoe. 

All hail the epic adventure wagon that is the mighty Elysion – Chris‘s car, which, tragically, he is unlikely able to use this year as it’s next to impossible for non-residents of Japan to get into Japan at the moment.

We then drove back to the take-out, near the Kaiun-bachi Bridge. We unloaded the bikes and started the hopelessly pleasant bike ride shuttle back up to the put-in. We made sure to scout the crux of the route – an old broken weir – from a bridge along the way. While HokkaiCamp report this is runnable in ‘low water’, it seems they haven’t done the route in water this low before. It certainly didn’t look runnable today.

From our bike ride back to the put-in, peeking at the river every now and then, we could see that the water level was low, but it didn’t seem too low. Despite the downstream water level station indicating 5cm more than when the folks at HokkaiCamp had run the river, there was certainly less water than what their photos indicated.

“Looks like that lower water station is not a particularly good indication of water levels up here,” I mentioned to Haidee.

We weren’t on the river for very long before we got our first taste of the wildlife along this section of the river. Haidee pointed out a gorgeous white-tailed eagle soaring above us. Then up on a tree next to a bend was a juvenile white-tailed eagle, watching us calmly. 

After floating in an eddy nearby for a few minutes birdwatching, we carried on our way. So far, the water level was perfectly manageable. We had to pick our lines down the swifts carefully to avoid bottoming out, but overall we had avoided any major bumps or scrapes. The river was still narrow and compact, and we were surrounded by thick forest.

A few more paddle-strokes (and one lining-down spot) later, we pulled into an eddy near the spot on the map indicating fossils. We had a leisurely lunch of coffee, sour-dough sandwiches (Haidee’s forte), and sweet convenience store danishes.

I had a wander along the riverbank and soon found a part of a fossil. Or at least my complete lack of knowledge of fossils told me it was a fossil. 

This whole section of river was a geological curiosity. Had either of us known more about geology, I’m sure there’d have been much more to look at and swoon over beyond the massive Moeraki-like spherical boulders dotting the side of the river. 

With water levels not at all very high, I was half hoping that the old broken weir along the route would have been runnable. Indeed, other reports we’d seen suggested it was definitely runnable in moderate water levels (but not in high water). We approached it carefully, and eddied-in behind it. While the initial drop would have been perfectly runnable, the downstream race was a shallow mess of jagged concrete blocks. We gave it a hard pass. This was awkward, but not impossible in this level of water. In more water, portaging around the weir would probably need to be done on the left, bush-bashing through the under-growth.

Beyond the old weir, there were are couple of nice swifts…

And some more river-walking as the river widened.

With this river being so close to Sapporo, there’s no doubt we’ll be back again some time in higher water.

Overall, despite the low water, we rated this section of the Tobetsu River as a fantastic daytrip, easily attainable from Sapporo City. Great feeling of nature and wildlife, and plenty of curiosities along the way. In higher water, the Class II rapids along the way would be more fun too.

As with each ski touring, cycle touring, hiking, and canoe touring route guide published on hokkaidowilds.org, should you choose to follow the information on this page, do so at your own risk. Paddle sports can be very dangerous and physically demanding – wear a personal flotation device, get paddlesports instruction, and do not exceed your paddling ability. Prior to setting out check current local water levels, weather, conditions, and land/road/track closures. While traveling, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, carry proper safety and navigational equipment, and of course, follow leave-no-trace procedures. The information found herein is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this information, associated GPS track (GPX, KML and maps), and all information was prepared under diligent research by the specified contributor and/or contributors, the accuracy of such and judgement of the author is not guaranteed. hokkaidowilds.org, its partners, associates, and contributors are in no way liable for personal injury, damage to personal property, or any other such situation that might happen to individuals following the information contained in this post.

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Comments | Queries | Reports

Done this route to Tobetsu River, or other waterways nearby? Thinking of doing it? Please post any feedback, reports, or queries here. Thanks!

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