Since I was a little kid the 'long pole in the tent', the Achilles heel, the limiting factor for outdoor tolerance in Great Lakes winters has been feet and footwear. Once the feet get cold the choice is to go inside or risk frostbit toes. Unlike hands which can be stuffed under the armpits or the core, which can be warmed up by another layer, there isn't a hell of a lot that can be done for the feet. Our family activity, before we all started skiing, was ice fishing. When I was young military surplus was the hot ticket. The old man at one time owned Bunny boots, Korean boots, and fleece lined USAAF boots used by the poor SOB's who flew high altitude, below zero missions in B-17's and B-24's. None of these were really great and there was no such thing as a kids size that could be handed down from a waist gunner on a Flying Fortress, so we were stuck with the rubber 'insulated' crap that was available in the late '50's. The green rubber 'Donald Duck' boots with the yellow sole were next to worthless and so was the technique of three pairs of socks and a bread bag over each foot before stuffing them into oversize leather boots. In both cases the warmth lasted about a half hour, the feet would sweat inside the moisture barrier and within the hour feet would be blocks of ice. The one combo that worked the best for we kids were felts and overshoes. I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m wearing in the vintage image of my sister and I ice fishing. A thick felt bootie, not meant to be walked in, was covered by a basic pair of overshoes, usually buckle because zippers froze, This was indeed the right track.
Sorel figured this out as well right around 1959. It seemed like within a few years that everyone on the ice had a pair of the classic Kaufman brown leather upper / dark tan rubber bottomed boots with the removable felt inner boot. LL Bean had the Maine Hunting Shoe since 1912 but for some reason never figured out the insulation component or just didn't market it as well as Sorel. I of course still had the felts and overshoes because no way was a kid with growing feet going to get outfitted with those pricey high end boots.
Fast forward to the 21st century and all its amazing outdoor technology. No matter what you buy or how much money is spent, sitting on your ass in any weather below about 20F is going to result in cold feet. Ice fishing, sitting in the deer blind, spectating at things like outdoor hockey or a ski jumping tourney or downhill race will result in cold feet unless you walk around a number of times over the course of the event. This can be tough while awaiting the wily buck or if the fish are biting. The deer hunter who can tough it out in the stand is going to see deer, pushed by the poor SOB's with cold feet that get down for a walk. At our camp the KingOfIronwoodIsland fills this role. A heart valve and its accompanying cumidin prescription insures that even his LaCrosse Iceman boots ("good to -40F"....yeah, right.) will result in him taking a walk. We are all very vigilant right around 9:30am, those of us who have made it to the blind by then. Icemen, Sorels, Regular Red Wing Irish Setters, which now have Goretex and 600,800, 1200 grams of Thinsulate, all claim to be comfortable down to ridiculous negative degree readings. I even pulled out the wallet for a pair of Steger Mukluks. Unfortunately none of them work if you are sitting in cold weather. None of them. What seems to work OK, better than the options however, are my Red Wings, 800 grams of Thinsulate, with a thick down or holofil over bootie. This thing prevents any walking but it insulates the entire foot and buys time before the inevitable winter walk.
The Polar Vortex, a phenomena that wore out it’’s welcome a month ago, is back and there is no way in hell your feet are going to be warm for extended outdoor activity, unless you keep moving. My advice would be keep snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and leave the ice fishing (unless you are one of the upwardly mobile fisherman with a heated shack) to those warm March days. The ice is getting black and honeycombed and the fish are practically surrendering. Many of us will be attending Woodyfest this weekend. Rumors are the woodpile for the bonfire is smaller this year, although smaller is relative. Perhaps that means that the volunteer fire department won’t show up to extinguish a reported garage fire, or maybe the main fuel for the fire, the hated Box Elder trees, have been exterminated from Woody’s property. Whatever the reason, standing by the fire drinking beer will be interrupted by frequent strolls into the house to warm up. Stay warm!