BY DEB CRAGER
Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
February 17, 2016
Whidbey Island is unique in its shape and terrain, beautiful, and a little rugged. Just ask the group of women who know the edges of the island better than anyone.
Harriet Hertzog, Alice Field and Alice Hanson started walking on the beaches around the island in 1975. Hertzog noted in her journal that they were seeking fresh air, exercise, a new and exciting experience and the fellowship of kindred spirits. Initially calling themselves The Whidbey Walkers, they quickly became known as the Ladies of the Beach.
It took two years for Hertzog and Field, in their “short pants,” to go completely around the island. By then, two more women, Idelle Bailey and Marilyn Visser, joined. Three others completed the route by 1980, with at least six new members working on it. As the group became larger, a logo was designed and T-shirts and notecards created.
Ladies of the Beach started on South Whidbey, but has since spread geographically, with members coming from all areas on the island, said Ann Christensen, a former leader, current member, and Clinton resident. It’s still going strong, although under new leadership.
Every week, a different route is chosen, and communicated to all the walkers.. Car pools help with parking and protection of the environment. The group has divided the walk around the island’s edges into 48 different segments, each with an average distance of three to four miles.
There is only one area on the island that cannot be walked on the beach, according to Joanne McMillen, current leader. “The route from Deception Pass to Cornet Bay has only cliffs—no sand and no beach.” Some walks may be cancelled if the weather is too rough. Flexibility is the key, the ladies agreed. The women must be willing to carpool, have meeting points, and work as a group.
It may take several years to complete the 156-mile trek; some women take longer, but completion is dependent on the schedules, routes, weather and the tides. Many of the women are retired, although others may take off work to complete the weekday commitment.
Many women have participated over the years, walking year-round in all kinds of weather. “It was such a glorious experience!” Barbara Lindahl, another early walker, said. “We shared new ideas and—every week—a new adventure.”
Some women stay for only a few years, leaving the group once they finish their walk; others have walked the perimeter several times. Membership has always been by invitation only, and three walks must be completed during the months of October through March before a walker is officially accepted as a member. No umbrellas or pets are allowed, and cell phones are discouraged except for emergencies and coordination. Those who complete the entire trip around the island celebrate with a graduation ceremony, a certificate and small gifts, handmade from beach flotsam.
“There may be anywhere from four to 30 walkers, so the group may be loud and talkative, but usually we break up into smaller groups and talk quietly,” McMillen said. The women have permission to travel along the beach, gaining access from private owners as well as public places. Christensen said the group carries a copy of the state statute allowing them access, in case homeowners question their travels. They enter and exit the beaches through well-known public areas or approved private access points. Safety is critical to the group, and they walk only as fast as the slowest walker. In their efforts to be good island stewards, they also pick up the debris along the beaches while they walk.
People have been very accommodating, member Betty Discher, said. “‘Are you those ladies?’ we’ve been asked. Now we have a reputation!”
Lindahl said the Navy stopped their target practice once so they could walk the beach near the firing range. She remembers crossing the range with Tommie Byers, another walker, on a very hot day at the end of their four-mile walk. Two or more groups had already been turned away, she said, but Byers didn’t want to walk another mile or more to get the car.
“We started across and a very young enlisted man came out of the bunker and told us to leave,” she recalled. “Tommie—with her hand on her hip and the other pointing at him, said: ‘Now son, we left our car over there and we are going to walk to it. Just tell your Chief that is what we are going to do.’
“As we left, we could hear the Chief admonishing this poor kid, in no uncertain words, and with plenty of expletives. To this day I can still see Tommie standing there, pointing her finger and saying ‘Now, son…’ That is one of my favorite memories.”
Noreen Warnock still has her marked map from years ago, when she spent three years completing her journey. She found the other women so interesting, she said, with their own histories and families. She added that each walk was unique, and recalled seeing tires and other objects that had been placed along the banks to slow their erosion. She left the group in 1994.
In addition to friends, there were a few mother-daughter teams too. Nan El-Sayed joined at the age of 76, completing her walk when she on her 80th birthday. “She was very excited about finishing,” said her daughter, Christi Shaffer, who also was in the group. “It took me a little longer, but I finished, too. And we have the closest friends here because we were part of it,” she added.
“I’ve made my way around the island several times,” Mollie Leengran said. She retired as the leader of the group in 2000. “Then it was more about just getting together; there wasn’t any pressure.” But what is most important—all the women agreed—is meeting up for lunch afterward, whether it’s in a restaurant, or the “driftwood inn” on the beach. According to Gwen Coughenour, another member, the Ladies are a “walking, talking, eating group!”
Now there are field trips during the worst winter months when there may be little walking because of the tides. “There’s the holiday party, the trip to Port Townsend, the trip to Seattle and cranberry picking,” McMillen said. The group is also responsible for the highway cleanup from Bush Point Road to Scott Road in Freeland.
Discher grew up on the island, but knows it so much better now, she said. “I’ve dedicated myself to learning what the island is all about. We’ve learned that the beaches change throughout the year and—over the years—sometimes we’ve had to go over logs, under logs, and through the water.”
In the last 40 years, there have been lots of changes to the island’s “edges,” but the pull to be part of this group of women walkers is still there. “I really wanted to join this group after I heard about it,” Christensen said. “I’ve had a chance to know the island better, and I’ve made so many friends. Ladies of the Beach was an opportunity for exercise and an environment for socializing,” she added, “and most of the Ladies still feel the same way.”
Image at top: Nan El-Sayed celebrating the completion of her walk at 80, after four years of walking (Photo by Pat Brookes)
Deb Crager is originally from the Midwest but has lived on the island for 25 years. She wrote the book “101 Things to do on Whidbey Island: for a Day, a Weekend, or a Lifetime” available on iPad and Kindle Fire, with older copies in print from Amazon and ebay.
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