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Becoming one with the mud

When you stop fighting it, the slippery Dutch pastime of wadlopen -- hiking across the mucky Waddenzee at low tide -- can grow on you.

August 15, 2004|Candice Reed | Special to The Times

Dokkum, Netherlands — 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 sport

The 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.

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