Off the Beaten Path: Wadlopen – A walk across parted seas

About a year ago, I was browsing the NYT Travel section when I came across an article about the Netherlands. Mostly any articles published in US media that discuss the Netherlands are of interest to me so this one was no different. It was an article about wadlopen, or mud flat walking.

Dutchie and I drove about 2.5 hours from The Hague to Friesland, a province in the north of the country. From various points in Friesland you can walk from the mainland to several different islands during low tide, all across mud flats in the Wadden Sea. I read online to wear shoes that cover the ankles, since the mud in the area is so deep that it can pull your shoe right off of your foot. I also read online we could buy shoes at the point we started from. Unfortunately, that wasn’t true.

We parked our car at a ferry station (ferries travel back and forth from the island to the mainland in the deeper areas), and waited for our friends who were joining us. Everyone there was wearing high top converse, while we were the only ones with old running shoes. You can only go wadlopen if led by a trained guide, many of which carry ridiculously large walking sticks and navigate the area with GPS. This was going to be interesting.

At about 4pm we started our trek out to Ameland, the island where we would be spending the night. We were sinking into the mudflats almost as soon as we began, and every step was a heavy one. I wondered how deep I would sink into the mud if I just stopped moving. Actually, it felt great. We spend most of our time worrying about being clean, making the dirty times somewhat of a luxury. Everyone was slipping and sliding in the mud, and everyone was covered in a dark grey stickiness. After the initial 200 meters or so, we were mostly in the clear. For much of the rest of the hike there was only shin high or lower water, save for the few times we had to wade through waist high water, and everyone had to carry their bags on their heads. It totally reminded me of that old Oregon Trail game. Looking at everyone forging the river, I felt like we were heading out west. All we needed were some oxen.

Once we got away from the mainland, everywhere I looked seemed like an endless expanse of land. I couldn’t see the island we were headed to yet, only the other groups walking to our right and left. The emptiness of the area was beautiful in a kind of, I have no perspective on which direction is north kind of way. It felt like a great big migration. All of us, covered in mud, backpacks full of water and snacks, wading across waters. And for what? Just for the enjoyment of it. At one point in time treks like this were necessary, and here we were in 2011, hiking across the sand just for the fun of it.

The best part, for me, was being out in nature and having to rely completely on our guides. If the guides leave at the wrong time or take the wrong course, the situation can immediately turn dangerous. The Netherlands doesn’t have the kind of natural parks that place like, oh say, California would have, so I spend most of my time in cities, so the opportunities for hiking are pretty minimal. Wadlopen was a welcome break from city life, and felt like something other worldly compared to how clean and contained city life is.


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