06-Mar-2004 -- Situated in a volcanic peninsula national park called Shiretoko, this confluence may be the most scenic nature hideaway of what I call "Hokkaido's Evil Three" confluences (the other two are 44N142E and 45N142). More than likely 'The Three' require a more than one-day pack-in trip with no prominent trails or roads. In the summer you have to deal with impenetrable vegetation and grizzly-like Japanese bears. In the winter it's the deep snow and cold. Known by the indigenous Ainu as "The End of the World", the peninsula has beckoned my friends and I to challenge it. And quite the challenge it delivered us!
Can you imagine stepping off a bus at 9AM into a flurry of heavy snowflakes with a frozen ice sea (the Sea of Okhotsk) on one side of you and an icicle waterfall cascading on the other side of you? And all you have is a heavy pack, tent, sleeping bag, skis and some food. This was no imagination, this was reality, and Mitch Dion and I had to deal the fact we were alone in the wild. Well, almost.
This was a scheduled tourist stop for the bus - a waterfall called Oshin Koshin I had actually visited on my trip out last summer close to where I took the picture for the last attempt. We were now about 6.7 kilometers from the confluence point. As we were preparing, droves of Japanese tourists in polyester suits and bundled overcoats waddled over to the icy falls for photo ops, staring at us as if we were from some dangerous, unsheltered and insane world.
The cliff next to the shore was one of the steepest in the pursuit of the confluence. It gave us a kind of initiation or rite of passage to the confluence. ...And it dealt us an ominous blow of what we could expect in the coming days of our journey. Mitch seemed to be fine, but the snow was thick, heavy and icy underneath, my skis were awkward up the steep slope and fell apart at the bindings, a problem that was not easy to remedy. Mitch had let me borrow his friend's alpine touring skis which seemed to be from the 1970's, had skins that didn't stick and outdated bindings with straps. Mitch, a snowboarder, had a state-of-the-art split snowboard so that he could ski uphill and board down.
At this point I should mention that Mitch, from Winnipeg, one of the coldest regions of Canada, is quite a seasoned winter camper, going off camping in the mountains almost every weekend in the winter. For myself, on the other hand, this was my first time attempting alpine touring or a winter camp. The great things that confluence hunting makes you do!
Once up the first steep slope, there was actually a snowy road cutting into the cliff. A few cars passed but it was mysterious to us where they could be going. As we neared the top of the cliff, we were now at the headwaters of the Oshin Koshin waterfall.
We had detailed topo maps of the region, but our plan was to follow a little used route called the Charasenaikawa route which leads to a 1331 meter volcano called Onnebetsu Dake listed in a Japanese hiking book called, "Hokkaido No Yama Totani". For anyone attempting this confluence, I recommend looking at the roughly illustrated map in this book. The route follows the stream by the same name and also called Oshyokomanaikawa. We were about to follow the stream up, but the steep gully around it was difficult for skiing, so we headed off into the forest.
Our attempt to delve off into the pristine wilderness was foiled again by human presence. As we cut up through the slope of the forest we noticed a strange run-down building. We summited up the plateau of the building and cut around it. It had a kind of 1960's style to it. The entryway looked like a weathered mountain lodge with dark wood and a pitifully stuffed bear, but the place smelled of fish. We talked to a staid, reserved middle-aged man in the entry area and found out that it was called the Seaside Park Hotel (or Kaiyotei). The man had no good advice for us but as far as his face could show expression it seemed he was concerned about our venture on such a heavily snowy day.
We headed back out having now used up a good part of our morning. After passing another weathered building (this one was gutted and abandoned), we were now truly out into the rugged wilderness.
We chose a route of least topography, so it was skiing up one small hummock and down another through the low visibility driving snow. Some forest was thick and other thin which dictated our route. It was a lot of hard work with heavy packs in the deep snow. My skis gave me a few problems but for the most part everything was okay for the rest of the afternoon, just slow.
Evening approached and Mitch said it was time to find a spot and set up camp. Our camp was now 4.7 kilometers from the point. He taught me and led me through everything involved in snow camping. One key is to have lots of extra pairs of everything: gloves, hats, pants, etc.: I barely had enough. Because of the heavy falling snow, a lot of equipment got wet, so a second pair was necessary. As night fell upon us, making and eating dinner was very cold in wet clothes and falling snow. With his extensive experience and good gear, Mitch was a warm, dry happy camper. Once I got into the tent and into my sleeping bag I was toasty warm. Snow fell heavily all night...
We woke up to deep snow and clear skies with a slight high altitude cold haze. After packing up, we were ready to go. We saw quite a few deer today scurrying and bolting away from us. The snow was deep and heavy and we were making slow progress. Everything looked good from the outset, but I led us up a steep ridge, thinking we were on another part of the topo map. It was tough and my skis gave me lots of problems. We wasted more than an hour getting up there but once we were at the top it was obvious we weren't where we thought we were. We traversed the ridge to try to keep our elevation but move to another part of the map.
At our lunch break we took a GPS reading: 3.8 kilometers more to go. We had traveled for a day and a half but we hadn't crossed half of the distance. We tried to figure out how much time the remainder of the trip would take but it seemed there was not sufficient time. We talked about it for a long time but we thought it only made sense to head back.
Following our tracks back made it easy enough to reach the Seaside hotel by evening but we had been hugely delayed by my attempt to find an area to take off my skins and ski down which led to a total breakdown of the ski bindings. The reserved man at the hotel, as far as his face could show, was delighted (and impressed) we had returned unscathed.
We were too late to catch a bus back and decided to hitch. Before we could walk out the door, Mitch talked me into first having a hot springs bath (onsen) at the hotel. After the cold, it was really irresistible. "Hopefully we can find someone in the onsen to give us a ride", said Mitch. It thawed us out nicely. Mitch was basically right: after the onsen, a woman named Atsuko who makes Ainu wood carvings and loves the band Slipknot offered to have her boyfriend give us a ride to the nearest town, Shari. There we camped out in the icy train station!
I'd love to attempt this confluence again, but if I return to Hokkaido again I'm not sure if it will be logistically possible. Good luck to others on this one, and have fun!