Slogging through mud and worms, and loving it

Holland: 'Wadlopen' trips offer unique and intimate contact with miles and miles of Dutch marshland and its wildlife.

Destination: Europe

August 01, 1999|By Jill Yesko | Jill Yesko,Special to the Sun

TERSCHELLING, Holland -- If Pig Pen was your favorite "Peanuts" character, have the Dutch got a treat for you. Every year, thousands of hale, hearty and mud-loving families flock to islands with tongue-twisting names such as Schiermonnikoog and Rottumeroog to go "wadlopen," a leisurely activity consisting of slogging through miles of thigh-high ooze in the Waddenzee, a vast marshland stretching across northern Holland.

Wadlopen excursions offer those unafraid of getting dirty the opportunity to literally make contact with one of the most diverse, albeit sticky, ecosystems in the world. Formed by the retreat of the glaciers during the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago, the Waddenzee is home to thousands of migrating birds who feed and nest along its banks. It's also home to innumerable creepy, crawly creatures with nicknames such as the Red Fred worm -- all of whom thrive in an environment with a high yuck factor.

Wadlopen trips begin in the northern province of Friesland, a three-hour trip north of Amsterdam via train, bus and ferry. The Wadden islands are remnants of a natural dike between the North Sea and an ancient marshland. They are also a popular destination for birdwatchers who travel there to see the 36 species of birds whose only breeding grounds are the shallow, peat-rich shores of the Waddenzee.

Because of the abundance of nutrients -- as well as strategic location -- the Wadden islands offer a natural oasis for birds such as the northern steen, whose migration orbit takes it from the North Pole to the South Pole. The islands are also home to the eider duck, a bird with a cast-iron stomach that digests whole cockles by contracting the powerful muscles in its belly to crack open the shells.

Getting knee deep in the hoopla has a unique appeal to the Dutch, whose battles to reclaim the land from the ferocious North Sea have been a centuries-long struggle.

"Wadlopen goes back to the biblical history of the Red Sea. It gives us a feeling of wilderness," says Paul Cock of the Society to Protect the Waddenzee, a 50,000-member organization whose adherents think nothing of donning rubber boots and old clothes for a 10-mile Sunday stroll through the mud. Hard-core wadlopers have been known to walk for days in chest-high ooze with little more than a compass and water bottle.

A trek across the mud

I recently took a junior version of a wadlopen trek on the picturesque island of Terschelling, the second largest of the five main Wadden islands. With its high dunes, 17th-century gabled houses and harbor filled with antique sailboats, Terschelling is a fine destination even for those with little desire to go mudwalking.

My wadlopen outing begins with a pep talk given by Otto and Willemien, volunteer naturalists and certified wadlopen guides. The do's and don'ts of wadlopen are fairly simple: Don't stray from the group and do keep moving. Hidden mud holes, some of which can be more than 6 feet deep, can easily swallow even the most experienced wadloper, warns Willemien. After a spate of drownings by solo wadlopers, the Dutch government now mandates that all wadlopers be accompanied by trained guides armed with cellular phones. Even so, helicopter rescues of wadlopers stranded in the muddy wilderness are not uncommon. Other wadlopen risks include being struck by lightning or getting lost in sudden, blinding rainstorms.

Perfecting the wadlopen waddle is no easy task. Wadlopen has often been likened to climbing a horizontal mountain in slow motion. A better analogy would be jogging through fudge. A minute of inattention means a boot sucked into the mud, or worse, an ego-destroying tumble into the goo. Guides often joke that if clients don't fall into the big muddy at least once, they don't feel they've given them their money's worth.

I quickly figure out the best way to stress-free wadlopen is to follow directly behind my guides, whose practiced pace enables them to glide along the slick top layer of the Wad. Some sections of the Wad are so glassy that fishermen use mud sleds operated like skateboards to cruise the mud in search of their daily catch.

After mastering the mincing kick and glide technique, my lesson in the hidden world of the Wad begins in earnest when I am handed a pitchfork and instructed to begin digging. In so doing, I excavate a block of mud chock full of all manner of worms, a feast for the innumerable birds who greedily gobble up the wriggly buffet. As far as the eye can see, the Wad is dotted with what looks to me like mounds of brown vermicelli, in reality piles of excrement left by worms who eat then pass their muddy meals along the Wad.

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