Wednesday, 24 June 2015


Rob told us there are bears all over Hokkaido
not that kind of bear
Having borne the rain, we are eager to get cycling again and soon find ourselves on the banks of the Ishikari River, one of the longest in Japan.  It snakes out of the mountains in the east and turns around the northern slopes of the central mountains before flowing through the city of Sapporo and draining into the Sea of Japan.  And it has a bike path.  Well, some of it does.  It comes and goes, leading us into the woods, or onto an overgrown embankment.  We happily ride along in the sunshine enjoying the warmth and the wild flowers.  

Our road is heading into the Sounkyo Gorge.  The road is bigger than we like, but there's a nice wide hard shoulder so at least we have some space to look around and enjoy the scenery.  There's nothing worse than 'white-line' cycling on the edge of a main road, listening out for overtaking traffic with vehicles coming in the opposite direction.  

Following the river upstream we are climbing slowly slowly and then almost imperceptibly, it climbs more steeply.  We ride through the ugly spa resort of Sounkyo and up to an enormous reservoir with great mountain views above the forest.  We don't find anywhere by the lake to camp and settle for a track off the main road.  But what about bears?  Rob had told us that there are bears all over Hokkaido, but that we are unlikely to come across any if we stick to the main roads.  Gayle scoffs, but at least agrees that we cook in a clearing away from the track where we'll camp.  As it is, when night falls previously unnoticed street lamps light up.  And trucks continue to thunder past.  There'll be no bears wandering around here.
bears everywhere

In the morning we climb up to a high pass of 1000 metres.  It's a tedious slog up some very long straight roads. 
We are rewarded with great views.  A big descent takes us into a long valley.  We are looking for a side track that will lead us through the woods and over a ridge and down to Lake Oketo.  The forest track looks like the right one and there are even some road signs further along it, although it looks little used.  There's a closed up house and a couple of gravel pits, but otherwise it's dense dark forest.  We follow the track along a river and then start to climb.  Soon we are pushing.  We climb and climb.  Conscious that we might be straying into bear territory I get out our little fishing-line bells and start speaking in a loud voice.  Gayle is unimpressed. She doesn't really think there are any bears in Hokkaido, but she would love to see one.  Quite frankly, I wouldn't.   We keep pushing up and up, around hairpin bends.  There's a tyre tread on the track, so perhaps there are woodcutters up here.  The problem is, we don't seem to be getting near to the ridge we need to cross.  It's hard to tell in the forest but it feels like we should have reached the pass by now.  And then we come to a pile of shit on the track.  It's black and big, and although it's not exactly steaming, it looks kind of fresh.  Now, I'm no David Attenborough, but this is looking serious. "Gayle, tell me that's not what I think it is".  "Maybe it's another cycle-tourist who's just seen the climb ahead".  Sure enough the track is getting steeper again.  Optimistically we continue up.  And then we come to another pile of shit.  Gayle takes a photo of it. 

The track flattens out and curves along a ridge.  And then it begins to descend.  In the wrong direction.  I've checked with the compass.  We are almost heading north and the lake should be south of here.  But it's a relief to be able to get on the bikes and head downhill.  Gayle hurtles away.  I'm following slowly behind and just noticing the two logger's huts by the track when I see Gayle has stopped in her tracks.  She says something I don't catch. What? "A bear!" "A bear?" "A bear!"  She's stock still. I don't know what to do.  There's nowhere to run except downhill ahead.  Fortunately the bear immediately dashed into the forest as soon as it saw Gayle.  We quickly confer and decide to retrace our footsteps. The track feels suddenly very claustrophobic.  Gayle looks excited and happy.  She wants to tell me about the bear.  I don't want to know anything until we are, literally, out of the woods.  At least we can ride back down the track - we retreat 6 kilometres and get back to the road.

How big was it? About this high, Gayle indicates the height of her bike.  Oh, so just a little black bear.  No, this was on all fours.  It was a big brown bear.  A grizzly. It was about twenty, thirty metres away. With it's back to her.  It turned when it heard her coming and then leapt into the trees.  Gayle continues to look excited and happy.  She knows she's very lucky.  I am so happy to be cycling on tarmac again.

blink and you'll miss it

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