Becoming one with the mud

NetherlandsOcean TidesRestaurantsDining and DrinkingTrips and VacationsEnglandTravel

I flew all the way to the Netherlands to play in the mud.

Of course, I didn't know that at the time; all I planned to do was relax. And for a week I did, spending my time in the Friesland province in the northern part of the country visiting relatives, snapping photographs of cows and sheep and contemplating windmills.

The day before my sludge adventure began, I sat contentedly in a cafe along a canal in the medieval village of Dokkum. An 18th century windmill was nearby, slowly turning in the wind. Life was good.

That was before I learned about the strange, dirty pastime of wadlopen, or mud walking. It was my husband Ralph's idea. His uncle Dick, our host in Dokkum, had told him about the rather odd pursuit of wadlopen while I kicked back in the village, unaware of the conversation.

The Dutch find the idea of hiking along the muddy bottom of the Waddenzee — a North Sea inlet — so much fun that more than 40,000 of them are lured each year to the Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen. They come at low tide — usually between May and September — to brave the muddy, murky sea bottom and trudge from the coast to islands a few miles away. More than 3,000 square miles of gleaming mud flats and the sea surround them as they slip and slide their way across the Waddenzee.

"You are so very lucky," Uncle Dick told us excitedly that night over dinner. "My friend knows a guide, and he will take you tomorrow. Since it is September it should not be crowded." He smiled widely. "You are so very lucky."

I was feeling great after so much relaxation and a couple of long-neck Heinekens, so I agreed to take a stroll. I don't think I was really listening to the actual conversation. I heard "islands" and "walk." I don't believe the word "mud" was mentioned in my presence. And so the next day I found myself following about 25 other hikers through the muddy cold water, backpack above my head, praying my shoes would stay on my feet.

Our day began in the nearby town of Pieterburen — the wadlopen center — where we met our guide, Hans Slag. We were the only Americans in the group, and I hoped I wouldn't embarrass our nation by being a stick in the mud. Ralph, an avid hiker, was eager to cross the Waddenzee, where his ancestors once herded cattle between islands.

Our mud walk depended on the tides and the weather, so Hans radioed the Dutch Coast Guard. The weather was unusually warm for fall, and we were quickly given the go-ahead. As we stood on the last dike in Holland, I could almost see the outline of our destination — Ameland — a four-hour walk, more than 12 miles away.

I don't even like to walk that far on dry land, but I put on my game face and walked into the sea with the others, feeling very much like a lemming. I took a deep breath, sucked the salty sea air into my lungs and plunged into the cold, black muck. As I slogged through the mud, the birds sounded as if they were heckling me. I tried to concentrate on putting each foot in front of the other, praying I wouldn't fall face-first in the mud.

The first few steps felt like walking in cream cheese. Then the muck got thicker, closing over my legs. My shoes quickly disappeared. I wished I were taller.

The high-top sneakers I hastily bought in Dokkum quickly filled with mud, and I was the first in the group to fall straight-legged back into the mud. My husband snapped a picture. Hans helped me up, and I decided not to speak to Ralph ever again for getting me into this mess. I might, however, run off with Hans, who seemed to have picked up more than one woman from the mud.

A wickedly popular sportThe precipitous tide can leave mud walkers trapped, so Dutch law prohibits self-guided mud walking tours. People have drowned, and the weather can turn on you. Professional guides, like those from Stichting Wadloopcentrum Pieterburen, take groups out, and are trained in life- saving techniques. They also livened up the hike, pointing out birds and cracking jokes as we slowly crossed the channel.

After a mile or so, I finally got my mud legs and began to enjoy the walk. My thighs were killing me, I was wet, cold and I stunk, but you couldn't do this back home in San Diego. In fact, according to our guide, this might be the only place in the world you could walk across the water. The sport, which began in the early 1960s, is so popular that you usually need to make a reservation at least a month ahead.

I started to slow down as my left shoe seemed to loosen, then both feet started to sink deeper into the mud. A power struggle between the bottom of the sea and my feet began, but finally I was able to pull free. One win for me.

I soon learned that balance and the ability not to become hysterical are key.

After more than two hours of hiking, the mud began to turn into sand, making walking easier. I finally caught up to Ralph.

"Isn't this great?" he shouted and laughed. It took everything I had not to push him into the mud. I figured his excitement must be a Dutch thing.

Just when I thought we were going to have it easy, Hans told us we would be crossing small twig dams strategically placed to ease the sedimentation of the mud. They were barely 2 feet high, but the mud around them was deep. After a 30-minute struggle, we moved on, muddy and tired, and reached higher ground.

We were now heading straight toward Ameland. Just when I thought I was safe, I found another obstacle beneath the calm surface of the shallow water. The mud sucked me in, and I found myself knee-deep in the water with my hips in danger of disappearing.

I wasn't the only one stuck. I experienced a second of satisfaction as I saw Ralph struggling with the mud too. We had already passed the so-called point of no return and so, even if the muddy water reached my chin, I resolved to move forward. I took a moment to catch my breath after every few steps, and I cursed myself for having joined this madness. Finally I reached the safe sandbanks on the other side of the coastal valley.

The rest of the trip should have been a cakewalk. On the horizon, through a veil of birds, the dunes of Ameland were visible. But there was no time for a short break. The rest of the group reached the sandbanks about 10 minutes before I did and had been watching my struggle against the water and mud with great interest. A few snickers could be heard, and I'm sure I heard the Dutch word for "slowpoke."

I had only a few minutes to catch a second wind and off we went. As we walked, Hans pointed out birds and other wildlife. The area is a nursery for marine life; a resting, molting and feeding area for several million migratory birds; and a habitat for thousands of birds, seals and many other species.

With the ground beneath our feet having become less muddy and more solid, my major concern became listening to our guide.

Not quite finishedSOON only solid sandbanks remained to cross. It was like walking on the beach. This I could do. I quickly started to feel better and decided mud walking wasn't bad after all. I began to enjoy the sun, the warmth and the beautiful Wadden landscape.

Wind and water had created a mini-landscape of ripples and tiny gullies in the sand. We could also see a big twin-masted ship that was waiting on one of the sandbanks for the tide to come in.

Meanwhile, our guide had found a perfect place to cross a gully. Another group of mud walkers was up to its hips in the water, but that spot wasn't good enough for us.

We were granted the dubious honor of crossing that same gully in a spot where the water was much deeper — up to our chests. Nobody dared complain. People picked up their backpacks and held them high above their heads to keep them dry, and we just smiled when the chilly water washed over us.

We crossed three such gullies. We rapidly got used to it, and I even started to like this refreshing bath. The last mile was the coup de grâce for our shoes and socks. All the dirt had just washed off in the gullies, but ahead was one final field of mire, full of cockles, mussels and other shells and green seaweed-like plants, with small crabs scratching around.

A group of German tourists stared at our sunburned faces, wet clothes and muddy black legs. Their look was a mix of interest and astonishment.

"That was great," I said as I caught up with my husband and Hans, who both look astonished at my burst of energy.

On the other side of the sand dunes we finally took off our muddy clothes. The North Sea water was cold, but tempting. It felt great floating around for a few moments while relaxing my muscles.

After a swim I exchanged my dirty clothes for the clean ones I had been carrying around all day. Clean — and with renewed energy — we hoofed it another few miles to the North Sea beach of Ameland, sandy, peaceful and wide.

It seemed strange walking along the sea instead of in it. The sun had disappeared and thick thunderclouds came rolling in. We could already hear the thunder.

I sped up as the wind intensified. Ralph and I were still 15 minutes from the nearest shelter, a beach cafe, when the thunderstorm broke. We started running but still got wet. Again.

The rest of the group was already at the cafe and welcomed us with a drink.

Hans stood up and applauded us. I applauded myself too.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Jumping in

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, nonstop service to Amsterdam is available on KLM; connecting service (change of planes) is available on Continental, Northwest, United, Air Canada, Lufthansa, Delta, US Airways, Air France and British. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $880.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below, dial 011 (international code), 31 (country code for the Netherlands) and the local numbers.

WHERE TO STAY:

Het Wapen van Hunsingo, Hoofdstraat 82, 9968 AG Pieterburen; 595-528-204, http://www.wapenvanhunsingo.nl . This hotel — where many mud walkers stay — has 12 small, clean rooms. The friendly staff speaks English. There's a small restaurant. Doubles $64-$76.

Mercure Hotel Haren-Groningen, Emmalaan 33, Haren (Groningen); 505-347-041, http://www.mercure.nl . This chain hotel in nearby Groningen is functional and modern. It's a great base for discovering the north of the Netherlands and the Wadden Islands. Breakfast buffet available. Doubles $107, with breakfast.

Hoofdstraat the Abdij van Dokkum, Market 30A, Dokkum; 519-220-422, http://www.abdij.nl . Former 14th century monastery, recently renovated, has spacious rooms and a small restaurant. Doubles $84.

WHERE TO EAT:

Restaurant Waddengenot, Hoofdstraat 93 9968AB Pieterburen; 595-528-558, http://www.waddengenot.nl . Eclectic, with good food. Entrees from $10.

't Centrum Groepsrestaurant, Hoofdstraat 82a, Pieterburen; 595-528-64. This is a popular jumping-off point for mud walkers, serving inexpensive breakfasts, coffee, sandwiches and dinner.

't Feithhuis Stadscafé Restaurant, Martinikerkhof 10/zz, Groningen; 50-313-5335. Great people-watching in this upscale cafe in a university city, although the food is average. Sandwiches about $10.

WALKING TIPS:

Guides: Contact Stichting Wadloopcentrum, Postbus1, 9968 ZG Pieterburen; 595-528-300, http://www.wadlopen.com ; or Dijkstra Wadloopcentrum, 10 Wadloopcentrum, Pieterburen; 595-528-345, http://www.wadloop.nl . Most guides speak English. Prices range from $15-$25, with the return ferry trip about $12.

Walking shorts or a swimsuit are suggested, not jeans, which will weigh you down. Because the weather is unpredictable, take a T-shirt, sweater, windbreaker, socks and high-top sneakers, plus a change of clothes in a waterproof bag or backpack. Take sunscreen and food.

TO LEARN MORE:

Netherlands Board of Tourism, (212) 557-3500 http://www.holland.com .

— Candice Reed

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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