“That water is way too low,” confirmed Greg. Greg and Mari, and Haidee and I had rendezvoused at the Rekifune River in Taiki Town on the southeastern side of the Hidaka Ranges in south-central Hokkaido. Haidee and I had already scouted the Rekifune River from a couple of bridges before meeting up with Mari and Greg, but they just confirmed what we’d been thinking – the Rekifune was in no condition right now for an overnight loaded canoe camping trip. “We’d be dragging the boats half the way,” continued Greg.
We’d been looking forward to this overnight canoe trip on the Rekifune River with Greg and Mari for a while now. We’d driven more than 3 hours from Sapporo City to get here, so we started to put on our thinking hats for an alternative.
“What about the Tokachi?” quizzed Greg. “It’s about 1.5hrs drive northeast from here, but there should be water. It felt like a bit of a gamble, but the catchment area of the Tokachi is so much larger than the Rekifune. It seemed like a decent bet to salvage the weekend. Failing that, we could always go for a paddle on Lake Shikaribetsu.
So we started the drive east to the Tokachi River. As Haidee drove, I started doing some basic mapping of a route, checked out HokkaiCamp.com for some beta, and checked the water levels. Good news – the water levels were about 30cm higher than a level that HokkaiCamp.com had reported as being “really good levels”.
When we arrived at the put in location, we were ecstatic. The Kuttara Dam hydro station outlet canal was pumping a great healthy torrent of water into the Tokachi – we were on. It was already 1pm by the time we finally got the canoes dropped off, one car shuttled to the take-out near Tokachi Onsen, and all of us back to the put in.
It was a scorcher of a day. Hot and dry. Getting on the water was sweet relief. Even more so with the great water level. Such a huge difference from the Rekifune. It was all whoops and whistles as we took off down the river.
It was immediately apparent that the Tokachi River has earned its respected prominence as the namesake of the vast Tokachi plains and extended Tokachi region. This grand old river on this section winds mostly unobstructed – a great flow moving at a decent clip towards the Pacific Ocean. It also became apparent that this would be no eyes-closed float down an easy river, either. Most bends in the river required careful reading of the water, and avoiding sweepers – downed trees ready to stop boats and paddlers in their tracks.
For any paddlers with at least an intermediate level of skill and experience, these were all easily avoided. But this is certainly not a first-timer’s beginner river.
With the Hidaka Range as a backdrop, there were some spectacular views to be had. For the most part, however, it was the wide open skies that really made things interesting.
“We’re generally at-the-crack-of-noon starters,” quipped Greg half way through the afternoon. He and Mari are veterans of Hokkaido river tripping, and Greg was preaching the virtues of paddling the afternoon into the early evening. “There’s something about the evening light,” he mused.
It was indeed getting on. We’d been making good time though – an average of about 10km/h while moving, so we’d already made almost 20km by the time we started keeping our radars out for good camping spots for the night. I’d marked a couple of possible locations while doing some Google Satellite scouting in the car, and we were coming up to one very soon.
We were also coming up to the New Tetra Rapids (新テトラの瀬) marked in a 2005 guidebook, and on HokkaiCamp.com’s GPS route of this section of the river. “A disappointing drop made of concrete tetra-blocks, that paddlers should definitely scout before committing to” read the guidebook description.
I had meant to keep a proper lookout for this obstruction in the river, but we were upon it before we could really do much scouting. We could see a definite horizon line, so Mari and Greg, up ahead, pulled as far as they could to the river right. Unfortunately, there was a huge uprooted tree on the river right, where otherwise they could have got out of the canoe to have a better look. In what appeared to be a last-minute decision, they pointed their canoe downstream, aimed for a gap between two tetra blocks, and rode the blocky, not at all smooth drop.
I would describe their passage across the drop as ‘angular’ in the way the front of the canoe dropped down, and then the back end thumped down after it.
Haidee and I were only about 20m behind, so were more or less committed too. We went for as much of a gap between a protruding concrete block as we could, and followed suit with an angular, thumping drop. Tell-tale sounds of chipping and cracking gelcoat could be heard above the roar of the water.
Sure enough, upon investigation later, we’d managed to peel off a good chunk of gelcoat. Easily fixed back home, and mostly cosmetic.
From the shore downstream, we did a quick debriefing. At the current water levels, the center would have been quite dangerous, with a 2-3m backwash keeper-like stopper happening. On the far river left, there was definitely a safe line.
As it happened, there was a very nice looking sandy/gravel bar just downstream from the Tetra Rapids, so we figured since we were out of the boats, we may as well camp here for the night. The early evening clouds set us up for a beautiful restful night of prime Tokachi riverbed camping.
The next morning broke cool and calm. To our surprise, the water level had dropped 16cm overnight. Was yesterday’s great water level just because of some left over effect from some recent rain? A look at the water level station readings, however, suggested this wasn’t the case. At around 1am, the water levels dropped from a stable 142.46m to 142.30m over the course of about an hour, and then stayed there until late morning. Someone had turned off the taps at the Kuttara Dam for some reason.
Haidee discovered some stranded fish in an orphaned pond, and spend about an hour scooping them up and reuniting them with the river just a few meters away.
In the meantime, Greg showed off with his newest gear purchase – a camping kettle. “It has a perfect spout for drip coffee,” he said, like a true coffee snob.
We got on our way on the river at around 9am. “This is an early start for us,” Greg informed us.
Before long, the cool of the morning was but a distant memory. It was shaping up to be another scorcher of a day. We were making good time still though, with a decently steep river propelling us downstream. We were now getting closer and closer to civilization – Memuro Town first, and then the large city of Obihiro. Greg and Mari had done this route before, and assured us that we’d never notice when we were passing through the city.
“The river feels completely detached from the city,” Greg explained.
He was right – the most we ever sensed from civilization was an increase in bridges over the river.
We stopped after about an hour of paddling for a break. It was 10:30 in the morning, and it felt like 100 degrees. A swim seemed like the only antidote.
The river was now flowing more like a stately heaving mass of water, broadsiding its way across the plains. We were starting to see more birdlife, including a few stately red-crested cranes.
The river still kept us on our toes with plenty of downed trees and sweepers to keep away from.
One of the most surprising and unexpected views came after lunch. We rounded a corner and were faced with some towering, multi-colored cliffs. Some layers in these cliffs appeared to be some sort of volcanic ash, and some had shells embedded in them. They were located around here, and were quite spectacular.
Beyond the cliffs, it wasn’t much further until our take out at Tokachigawa Onsen. With mountains fading into the distance, we were nearing the end of an awesome two days on the water. We couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend a swelteringly hot weekend than to spend it paddling down the mighty Tokachi River. A big thanks to Greg and Mari for coming along for the journey!
We finished up with a well-earned hotspring soak at the Kangetsuen Onsen Hotel, and then did the final shuttle back to the put in to pick up Greg and Mari’s car. From there, it was back to the big city Sapporo.