Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Cold Feet

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. Im pretty sure thats what Im 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 wont 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 Woodys property.  Whatever the reason, standing by the fire drinking beer will be interrupted by frequent strolls into the house to warm up.  Stay warm!


Nan said...

I cataloged a pair of those Korean war era boots at the museum a week or two ago. Don't know how warm they kept a person's feet, but for sure they don't look very comfortable.

I remember the bread bags, except as a girl/teen, the layering was tights or panty hose, thin cotton socks, wool socks, the bread bags, and finally rubber boots. For ice skating, there were fewer layers because the boots fit snugger.

I've been watching all the panic over letting kids go to school in the cold this winter and wondering how we all older folk survived. No Thinsulate or down-filled jackets, homemade wool mittens that were one step away from bare hands, wool snow pants that the wind cut right through . . . it's amazing we lived through any winters.

DaveO said...

Note the high end choppers I'm wearing in the mid 60s shot. My dad had the white bunny boots in the photo and the Korean black 'Mickey Mouse' boots with the valve and air bladder. I guess the air layer was thought to provide more insulation. The funny thing is with all the Thinsulate, Holofil, Polarfleece, etc., I am back to pretty much all wool. That Merino stuff is great and a lot of times can be acquired cheaply if you keep your eyes open.

anthony schmitz said...

I found a box of moosehide at a Frogtown garage sale a couple years back. So I got a mukluk pattern and sewed some up. They are supremely ugly — like something out of a native people's sheltered workshop. You don't realize how much skill and craft goes into this stuff until you try to duplicate it. Anyway, I stuffed the things with Sorel liners, then put a layer of sheepskin under that as an inner sole. Unlike Sorels, the things don't have that plastic non-breathable foot covering. I still wouldn't say you can sit around for hours outside without moving. That is probably an unrealistic standard. If the temps are around zero, so that the mukluks aren't getting soaked from the outside, these are pretty good. But visually suitable only for a caveman's ball.

DaveO said...

I got a pair of Steger mukluks when son Erik was a 'Charlie Guide' at the Sumner Canoe base in the BWCA. They gave guides steep discounts on one one pair each of winter and summer mukluks in hope of luring their clients to their store in Ely. Since a 19 yr old would not be seen at a dog fight with foot gear like that, his fashion retarded dad was awarded the discount. Very warm, especially if walking, but avoid any water at all costs.