I'm in the midst of one of life's stranger moments: a 14-mile slog through the brown, blue, and green mud along the bottom of the Wadden Sea, off the north coast of the Netherlands. My legs ache, and I'm struggling to keep up with my 48-year-old Dutch guide, André Staal, whose baseball cap, shorts, and high-top sneakers contrast almost comically with his long white beard, windblown silver hair, seven-foot wooden staff, and penchant for quoting the Old Testament. He perks up when I tell him my name—it gives him license to recite the Bible story of the prophet Nathan,which, curiously, I've never heard before. The ancient Nate certainly never had to contend with muck like this back in Israel, helping Solomon ascend to power.
We've hoofed down a dike from a seaside pasture near the mainland town of Pieterburen into the Wadden seabed, where the tide has ebbed long enough for us to make our way to the island of Schiermonnikoog. Gulls swoop overhead and down beside us on the vast expanses of sea-packed sand, shin-deep pools, and saltwater channels. In six hours, the tide will return and fill in our tracks. It's just like the Israelites' Red Sea crossing, Staal points out, where winds made the tide ebb lower than normal. "It's in the book of Exodus this way," he tells me. "It's the same as here."
Staal is a guide in the Dutch sport of wadlopen ("walking across shallows"), and every Dutch wadloper I've talked to describes the whole thing as a cracked endeavor. Cracked, but popular. There are a hundred mudwalkers on this tour, and other groups, mostly Dutch, leave the shore daily throughout the summer. People have crossed the Wadden on foot for centuries, driving cattle to fresh pastures between the Frisian Islands, including Schiermonnikoog, Ameland, and Terschelling, all of which now have campgrounds scattered among 18th-century captains' houses on cobbled streets. The first tours began in the winter of 1962. The sport is such a draw now that you need to make a reservation a month in advance (for safety reasons, it's against the law to wadlope without a guide).
I split from Staal and ponder a question demanded of me early this morning by fellow wadloper Loek Stolwijk. "You're an American? What the hell are you doing here?" Few foreigners participate in wadlopen, and that's what drew me to it. But all I can think about now is that I'm a cold American. A cold, wet American. Tired, too. I don't know the name of the muscle groups that pull feet from muck, but mine are burning like hell. My hiking boots are full of saltwater and plastered with mud, and I start lagging behind, joining and rejoining various groups of walkers—most wearing enviously light canvas shoes and hailing from places like The Hague, Amsterdam, and Rotterdam.
The other walkers give me several explanations for why some 30,000 Dutch wadlope each year—as potentially dull, messy, and stinky as a walk in the mud sounds. For them, it's high adventure: In the Netherlands, there are no mountains to climb, no fierce rivers to run. "But we do have mud!" one wadloping physician exclaims. And in a culture that still embraces Calvinist austerity, an uncomfortable walk is gratifying. "We are Dutch," explains Klaas Krottje, an engineer and wadloper from Apeldoorn. "This is what we do. We are walking in the mud. We are cold, wet, tired, and we like it."
At my sluggish rate, my destiny seems to be appreciating the miles of unbroken flats. Earlier we glimpsed a seal, and we've seen bountiful mussels and clams half-buried in the mud and the sanderlings, avocets, and gulls that feed on them.
I fall in with Stolwijk, a dark-haired, bespectacled Dutchman in his thirties, and we lope across puddly and agreeably packed sand, and when an hour passes we step bedraggled onto the the island of Schiermonnikoog.My shorts soaked, I straddle the final obstacle, an electrified sheep fence, without incident. And then comes bliss. What could be more pleasing than lying in grass, looking across a filling sea I've just crossed, waiting for those even slower than I to jigger themselves past the charged wires?
When the last walkers are in, Staal leads me to a farmhouse where we wash up. Then it's a 45-minute ferry back to the mainland port of Lauwersoog where we dine on fried cod and raw, salted herring. "Fresh from the sea," Staal says, waving greasy fingers toward the filled-up Wadden. "Just like us."
You'll need a guide and a pair of really, really old sneakers
Dutch law prohibits self-guided mudwalking on the grounds that should one of the frequent fogs roll in and a compass isn't handy, you could be in real trouble. Such restrictions place tours in high demand, so plan on reserving a spot a month in advance. Trips run year-round, but the weather (and mud) is warmest from June through August. You'll find temperate weather and the fewest crowds in May, September, and early October.
GETTING THERE: You can fly from New York to Amsterdam for $750 round-trip on KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines, 800-447-4747), or get a cheap fare through a consolidator such as Missouri-based Canterbury and Tiger Travel (800-688-4909). Once there, it's easy to rent a car for about $30 per day from Hertz (800-654-3131) or Avis (800-3331-1212). From Amsterdam, it's a 110-mile drive north to wadlopen central, the ranching village of Pieterburen.
OUTFITTERS: Pieterburen-based Stichting (011-31-595-528-300)is the largest and oldest wadlopen guiding service. Stichting offers mudwalks of various lengths, from the 14-mile trudge to Schiermonnikoog ($15, including return ferry) to a slightly shorter trek to Ameland (also $15) to a quick out-and-back stroll to the sea bottom ($7). Dijkstra Wadloopcentrum (595-528-345), also in Pieterburen, offers similar hikes for $7 to $18.
WHERE TO STAY: Spend a night in Pieterburen at spare, tidy Het Wapen van Hunsingo on Hooffstraat, the town's central thoroughfare (doubles $60; 595-528-203); it's also the only place in town to go for a meal—such as traditional Dutch crepes called pannekoeken—and an Amstel. The campground just behind the main drag charges $5 per site. On Schiermonnikoog, camp at Seedune ($2 per tent; 519-542-398), about a half-mile north of the island's only town. Or stay at the Strandhotel Noderstraun ($125 for a double; 519-531-111), which overlooks the North Sea beach. On Ameland, the Duinoord campground ($3 per site; 519-542-070) has 700 sites in the shadow of 30-foot dunes.