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Home Wadlopen 2007 - 2012 Getting muddy in The Netherlands

Nieuwsarchief Wadlopen 2007 - 2012

Getting muddy in The Netherlands

zondag 23 mei 2010


NEW YORK CITY - We’re driving on top of a dike in the northern province of Friesland in the Netherlands, with a sliver of pink-hued sunrise slicing through an otherwise gray sky. We zoom past verdant pastures full of cows and sheep, past centuries-old churches, and past windmills, both old and modern. I notice the blades on the newer machines are spinning fast. That’s a bad sign: more wind means more water. That is, more water in the Wadden Sea, a thin and shallow stretch of the North Sea that separates the Dutch mainland from a series of islands, including Ameland, a narrow slip of pristine land that’s home to four villages.

My wife and I have gotten up before dawn this late August morning to walk from the coast to Ameland - through lots of mud and water. This soggy eight-and-a-half-mile trek has to be timed just right with the tides, but windy conditions can cause the water level to be too high and unsafe for an on-foot crossing. I realize we’re going to get soaked.

The Dutch call it wadlopen
In the Netherlands, trudging through muck is a recreational pastime. The Dutch call it wadlopen, and the Wadden Sea, one of the world’s last remaining natural large-scale inter-tidal ecosystems, recently designated a Unesco World Heritage site, is a popular destination for the country’s mud-trampers.

When we arrive at the ferry dock at Holwerd, it’s cold, raining and windy. The sun has risen, but it’s so gloomy I can’t discern our supposed destination across the choppy sea. All I see is gray water meeting gray sky. We’re going to walk out into that? Most wadlopers are garbed in shorts and sweaters or sweatshirts and carry backpacks containing dry clothes wrapped up in plastic. They huddle under whatever cover they can find.

Follow the guide
You can’t make this walk without someone who knows where the water is shallow enough to permit pedestrian passage. The guides, mostly men in their 30s and 40s, wear professional-looking water shoes and windbreakers bearing the insignias of their tour-guide outfits. They’re consulting about the weather conditions: Several trips are canceled because of the wind.

As we wait for our unaffiliated guide - whom we found through a friend of a friend - we mention his name to two other guides. They smile, as if a joke was just told. A look of concern passes across my face, and one says: 'Oh, don’t worry. He’s good.' Of course, I now worry. He pauses and adds, 'Very experienced.' I worry even more. Moments later, Chris Kraster, our guide, appears. He doesn’t look like the others. He’s wearing plaid shorts, a worn blue sweater and black high-top sneakers. And he’s older than the other guides. A lot older. He’s 76. My wife and I exchange looks. Holding a seven-foot-long pole, which he’ll use to measure the depth of the water while we walk, Mr. Kraster is a short but compact fellow, balding, with a pink round face and wearing round specs. He darts about quickly, conferring with the other guides. 'At least he’s energetic,' my wife observes. Mr. Kraster tells us the water level is almost six inches higher than normal. I ask if we’ll be able to proceed. 'Oh, we’re going,' he says without a pause. Not for a moment has he considered canceling. He rounds up his group of 20 mud-walkers and leads us toward the water.

As we head out, Willie van der Maer, a 46-year-old manager of a Dutch call center, tells me that she does this trip every few years. Why? I ask. 'You’re walking through the sea,' she says with a grin.

Mr. Kraster
Following Mr. Kraster, we all gingerly step onto a sweeping tidal mud flat. Tha-wuck! It feels as if the mud is sucking in my foot. I think of quicksand. I take a step and the wet ground swallows my other foot. When we signed up for the trip, we were informed that it would be moderately strenuous. But I exercise once every three weeks, so I had thought, no big deal. Now I’m reconsidering.

Mr. Kraster, a retired sales manager, tells me he’s done these hikes for 37 years and has made about 1000 crossings. He notes that mud-walking is an activity and that 'everyone in Holland feels they have to do this once in a lifetime, especially young people.' But water hiking is not as popular these days as it was in the ’70s and ’80s. In those years, he says, about 50,000 people a year trudged through the sea. In the last five years, the number has dropped to 30,000 because of competition from running and biking marathons, and other sports. 'And that’s fine by me,' he adds. The solitude is part of the appeal - as is the camaraderie of the passage.
Vlnr. Jan Kraster, Chris Kraster, Anke Kraster
Foto wadloper.com

Mr. Kraster breaks the leaf off a seaweed plant and eats it. 'It’s called zeekraal,' he says. 'Lots of vitamins.' He then moves quickly on. The rest of us are sliding and slipping, trying to determine the best way of walking through the mire. You can take individual steps. Or you can slosh your feet forward, like cross-country skiing through sludge. I alternate between these two methods. Neither one appeases my upper thighs, which are already beginning to ache.

Where is Ameland ?
We trudge after our guide, gliding into a horizon of grayness. I peer ahead. Is there an island out there? I can’t tell. Mr. Kraster doesn’t make small talk. He moves through the water and mud with a jaunty, bowlegged motion, like a sandpiper. He never looks back at the rest of us. I try to cheat by walking in his footprints. But though he’s several inches shorter than I am, his gait is longer, and I have trouble matching him step for step. After about 15 minutes, the water is above our knees. With my sneakers full of mud, each foot feels as if it weighs 50 pounds.

After about an hour, Mr. Kraster comes to a stop. He says he has some good news and some bad news. For the next stretch, the ground will be less muddy - but the water will be higher. He points in the direction we’ll be heading. I still see nothing but sky and water before us. He could be leading us anywhere - including into deep water. He takes a step, and the water is close to his waist. The rest of us realize we are standing on a ridge and about to take a plunge. 'Who is this guy,' I ask aloud. 'Moses?' A few of the Dutch people near us titter. 'Please don’t divorce me,' my wife says. This walk was her idea.

We walk, wade and push on. At times the water is chest-high, and we have to remove our backpacks and hold them above our heads. One member of our group is wheezing and says she cannot keep up. Mr. Kraster slows the pace, but only a little. We pass large mounds of mussel shells. He points out that this part of the walk often used to be free of water at low tide. But in the last five years, it has always been covered by water. Is it global warming? I ask. 'All I know is what I see,' he says.

A slip of land, miles away
Eventually, I spot a slip of land in front of us. It’s miles away, but at least we have a target. Once we reach a long sandbar, we’re treated to a break - and a brilliant panorama. To our right, distant clouds are letting loose dark, thick bands of rain. To our left, the sun has broken through to illuminate a bright azure sky. All the colors are sharp, the air crisp. We’re standing in the middle of the ocean, part of a vast and flat expanse, bathed in light, watching weather fronts coming and going. Every member of our group is smiling. Ms. van de Maer says to me, 'See why I keep coming?'

After we soak in this glorious vastness for 10 minutes or so, Mr. Kraster says it’s time to move on. We leave the sand bar, and we’re back in the water. It’s now windier and colder. Ameland looms ahead. Finally, we reach the end of this five-and-a-half-mile stretch of deeper water, and we’re on another mudflat, still almost two miles from the island. Mr. Kraster doesn’t slow down, though some of us start to trail farther behind him. With silt collected in my sneakers, it’s as if I’m walking on stones. To our right and left, other tour groups are converging on the eastern tip of the island.

It’s been three hours since we first strode into the muck, but we finally reach land. Dozens of trekkers have a can-you-believe-we-did-that expression on their faces. But it’s not over. There’s another half-hour walk, through bright green cow fields and grassy dunes dotted with daisies. We reach a farmhouse where there’s a long trough full of water that the mud-walkers can use to clean up before biking to the island’s main town where we’ll later catch a ferry back.

People start undressing; modesty is in short supply. As we wash up and trade drenched clothes for dry garb, I’m moving rather slowly. The guides tell us that this was one of the more arduous crossings. I feel slightly less wimpy about the aching in my feet, legs and back. Mr. Kraster looks as if he’s ready - even eager - to walk back to the mainland.

Bron: New York Times