Walking the Sea

Mud flats are treacherous. Yes, the Wadden Sea stretching along the coasts of Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands is UNESCO protected. We support that. But, when hiking the Frisia Coast Trail and you go walkabout on its flats at low tide, do so with the utmost care because UNESCO does not give you protection. “It is neither land nor sea,” as the Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote at the beginning of the first century AD. Probably he was informed by the Roman commander Corbulo, and who must have had amazing analytical skills. In this post one of many fatal stories how things can go bad when walking the grey sea.

At the dike at the hamlet of Zwarte Haan (zwarte haan translates literally ‘black rooster’ but actually derives from ‘dark/cold corner’) on the seafront in the north of province Friesland, stands a statue of a slikwerker ‘mud worker’. Their work in the mud was to accelerate sedimentation of clay. This way creating new marshlands eventually becoming new, rich arable land. Mud workers were doing a nearly impossible job at the mud flats of the Wadden Sea. From the Netherlands to Denmark, from Zwarte Haan to Esbjerg. Here, at low tide, poor but strong men dug trenches and laid dams. Dams called in German a Lahnung, in Mid-Frisian a riisdaam, and in Dutch a rijsdam.

Deus mare, Friso litora fecit

Gott schuf die See, der Friese die Küste

God created the sea, the Frisian the coast

If you have ever walked on these endless flats and sank into the wet clay to your knees or even deeper, you know walking the flats is tiring. And, a bit frightening too. As a boy, author of this post once spotted a full-grown cow in a ditch on the salt marshes, with only its head and backbone sticking above the clay. You could tell it had enough of this mud-bath retreat and did not want to turn into a water buffalo. Luckily, the animal was still alive and the owner was notified, of course. Anyway, if you ever have shoveled earth for a full day, you know this is hard work. Imagine it is wet clay you are shoveling. If you ever have stood in the sea during spring for a full day, you know it is cold too.

Well, the mud worker combined everything of the above. With their hard labour, mud workers slowly took back land from the sea. Land that had been lost over the last thousand years or so. The reclamation of this land was emotional and belonged to the psyche of the northerners, of Germany and of the Netherlands: the Frisians, the Jutes, and the Saxons.

Reclamation of land was an activity of the church in the High Middle Ages. In the spirit of the book of Genesis, cloisters, monasteries and abbeys tried to finish the creation of land. It were especially the severe, skinny monks of the Cistercian Order who were very much involved in this line of hard work. With the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, though, land reclamation became a task of farmers, the so-called dike-wardens. In Dutch language dijkgraafs, and in German language Deichgraf, both meaning ‘dike counts’. A task of water boards (not to be confused with waterboarding) too, which in Dutch are called waterschappen and in German Wasserverbände. In the Netherlands, from the first half of the twentieth century, reclamation of land became a task of the central government. Since then, creating new land no longer was the sole objective. Tidal marshlands were increasingly regarded as a first defense barrier to protect the land, as well. To slow down rough seas and that way protecting the dikes bordering the marshlands.

dam remains – province Groningen

The traditional way of reclaiming land was to start building low dikes of earth on the salt marshes to speed up sedimentation. From the twentieth century onward, these dikes were replaced by low dams made of two rows of wooden pools filled with brushwood in between. The so-called rijsdams or Lahnungs mentioned earlier. The Dutch copied this technique which was already practiced in region Schleswig-Holstein in Germany. But whereas in Germany construction of rijsdams was restricted to the already silted up tidal marshlands itself, in the Netherlands rijsdams were constructed on the adjacent mud flats as well. Indeed, on the sea floor itself. Only accessible at low tide. It were rows placed both transversely and parallel to the main dike. Thus creating mud fields of exactly hundred square meters.

Wood and other materials were transported both from land-side with little trains across the salt marshes, and from seaside with boats. The latter were unloaded at low tide. With little mud sleds the wood was transported to its final location. The remains of rusted rails of the former narrow gauge train tracks, can still be found on the salt marshes of the Noarderleech in the Netherlands. It is part of the Frisia Coast Trail, the section from the hamlet of Zwarte Haan to the village of Holwerd. Often old rails have been reused into foot bridges. Go quickly, because they are disappearing.

If you want to know more about these weird silt sleds, but also the fun you can have with them on the mud flats, read our post Racing the Wadden Sea with a Silt Sled.

silt sleds – region Ostfriesland

A deadly tragedy

But, not only mud workers who took from the sea. Sometimes the sea took a mud worker. “The sea gives and takes,” as the saying goes. Although, this refers mainly to caught fish and drowned fishermen. One such story, from January 1961, has been preserved.

It is the tragic story of Willem van der Ploeg. Being a mud worker, he worked on the flats behind the Westpolder in province Groningen. A party of seventeen workers from the districts Achtkarspelen and Kollumerland in province Friesland had started that day at 08:00 o’clock in the morning. Willem worked together with Klaas Nieuwenhuizen and Jan van Seggeren. During lunch break at around 11:30 hours, they were looking for a dry tidal plate to get warm feet when suddenly a dense fog came up. Sky, dike and salt marshes were no longer visible. High tide made the sea flow across the tidal plates too. Only a few of the fifty shades of grey remained. This potentially deadly combination makes you lose your orientation completely. From the moment the sea floods the tidal plates, there is no way you can tell anymore where the deep creeks are. Let alone in a fog.

mud workers

As a hiker this would be the moment to reach for your GPS or SPOT device. They were not that fortunate half a century ago. Instead, the men disagreed on the proper course to safety. They had to move because the sea would swallow the plates and mud flats soon. After that, the waterwolf, rising to 2.5 meters, would certainly swallow them as well. A trapped feeling you might compare with being inside a smoking house burning down. Willem decided to go in one direction. The wrong direction as it turned out. To swim better he took off his coat and boots. His two colleagues went the other direction.

For two hours Jan and Klaas swam and waded through the cold and dark water. It was January. Jan was so exhausted, Klaas had to drag him the final stretch to one of the dams. Klaas left Jan behind not having the strength anymore to drag him any further. Klaas knew the dam would lead him to the coast. He reached the dike, finally. By now, it was high tide. After being warned by Klaas, other mud workers hurried themselves to bring Jan into safety too. Farmers and mud workers then began a search for Willem.

Only his jacket and boots were found

When in 1969 the Lauwerszee ‘Lauwers (inlet) sea’ was sealed off from the Wadden Sea and turned into a lake called Lauwersmeer ‘Lauwers lake’, and the sea was thus pushed back again once more, the new road on the former Zoutkamp tidal plate was named after Willem. And when you go to, for example, the salt marshes of province Friesland at Zwarte Haan, or at the village of Paesens-Moddergat today, you can see the dam and trench relics of those tough marine men; the gens durissima maritima.

The saga of the Wattgeist

In Land Wursten, the Frisian marshlands on the east bank of the River Weser bordering the Wadden Sea, exists the sage of the Wattgeist ‘Wad Ghost’.

The drowned man’s ghost tries to claim a new victim for the sea, by Thorvald Niss (1842-1905)

The saga is about two fishermen from the village of Padingbütten, both inexperienced. One day at low tide, they walked with their nets and fish traps onto the flats of the Wadden Sea when they saw a very tall man standing in the distant with a flounder as big as he. The tall man gestured to the fishermen to come near. The eldest of the fishermen did not trust the whole thing. He considered it was still a long distance, the tide could come in soon, and the mud flats had its dangers. The other fisherman, however, thought his colleague was a coward. He looked greedily at the tall man’s huge flounder and hoped to catch such big fish over there too. The older fisherman warned of the Wad Ghost that lured people too far from the coast, to a place on the flats from where they would never survive. His plea fell on deaf ears, because the younger fisherman was too obsessed. The older fisherman returned to the coast and of his colleague was never heard again.

Walking the sea yourself

There are numerous places along the Frisia Coast Trail where you can hike the sea. Walking from the coast to islands, and maybe back. Everywhere from province Friesland to Kreis Nordfriesland. Even from island to island. Walking from the island Texel to the island Vlieland is even possible. This is not for the faint heart, though. As a crow flies, this distance is only three kilometers. Walking it, is thirty kilometers. It means you have to defy a full high tide at sea, called overtijen in Dutch, which can be during the night too. You build your own scaffold of poles and nets, called a wadstoel ‘wad stool’ to hang above the sea during high tide and, if possible, to sleep in. Thrilling experience, must be.

overtijen in a wadstoel

Please, do keep the sad story above in mind when you challenge these endless mudflats, creeks and tides of the Wadden Sea. If you go walking the sea, do not forget to bring your waterproof GPS or SPOT device or, even better, a guide of flesh and blood. This is genuine dangerous wilderness.

Below some information and a few addresses if you want to walk the sea:

Note 1 – Read our post A Wadden Sea Guide and his Twelve Disciples about the 6-hours hike from the coast of province Groningen to Wadden Sea island Schiermonnikoog.

Note 2 – Find here some more hiking routes along the Wadden Sea coasts of Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands.

Note 3 – credit featured image of this post to Erik de Graaf.

Further reading

  • Essink, K., Visserman gered door grenspaal in de Dollard (2016)
  • Blanken, H., Wadloper (1983)
  • Iba, E.M. (ed), Hake Betken seine Duven. Das grosse Sagenbuch aus dem Land an Eld- und Wesermündung (1993)
  • Kok, A., Randland. Portret van de Friese en Groningse kuststrook (2002)
  • Rooijendijk, C., Waterwolven. Een geschiedenis van stormvloeden, dijkenbouwers en droogmakers (2009)

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