Hiking (without) boots

In late summer of last year, I was hiking with some friends on the Escarpment Trail, east of Lake of the Clouds, in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. Climbing toward one of the trail’s many overlook points, we passed a pair of hikers, tough hikers, descending from that overlook.

What made them tough was the fact they wore no shoes. The Porcupine Mountains’ Escarpment Trail, by most standards, is a fairly rugged trail, its geology such that most who hike it prefer to have rubber shoe soles as an intermediary between their feet and the ground. I’ll get back to the idea of shoe soles as an intermediary, momentarily.

First, I want to mention these Porcupine Mountains hikers were far from the first outdoor enthusiasts I’ve encountered who prefer experiencing nature unshod. I know one avid outdoorsman who eschews shoes in the harsh environment of America’s desert Southwest, though he does resort to at least minimalist footwear when hiking particularly jagged-rock-and-cactus-ridden trails.

Walking barefoot on the other side of the climactic spectrum is a Keweenaw resident who spends substantial portions of his winter mornings attending to outdoor chores, in the cold and snow, without boots or shoes. The advantage to this behavior, by his account, is that it kicks the body’s natural heating system into gear – gets the blood flowing – and so makes it easier to stay warm the rest of the day. I have tried winter “barefooting” on unplowed sidewalks in town, and it is invigorating.

The idea of actually hiking shoeless, like the pair of hikers coming down from the overlook in the Porcupine Mountains, promises a somewhat different, possibly enriched, experience of a landscape. A more direct sensory experience, perhaps, unmediated as it is by a boot or a shoe’s rubber outsole. This appeals to me and resonates with a theme that has emerged in my recent outdoors columns: the sensory experience of nature.

So I returned, without shoes, to a nature trail I have hiked (and snowshoed, and cross country skied) numerous times before: Black Creek Nature Sanctuary, out past Sedar Bay in the southwestern corner of Keweenaw County. I am very familiar with that trail, so it makes for a sort of control in this experiment. It is also a good length: a six-mile round trip to the shore of Lake Superior and back again.

The trail’s other virtue, for the purpose of barefoot hiking, is the diversity of its surface. The Black Creek trail traverses sunny scrub fields; sandy hillsides; forested sections filled with pine, maple, aspen, and so on. It runs alongside two creeks and meets with Lake Superior at a beach of stone cobbles.

Hiking it shoeless, the trail felt good underfoot. There were blankets of tawny pine needles with their rough texture, cold aspen and maple leaves flattened in a smooth layer by this past winter’s snow, and occasional gnarled tree roots which caught the arches of my feet by surprise. After a few miles walking on pine needles, cool, shaded sandy patches were welcome.

My feet developed black patches where pine sap stuck to them and gathered dirt. There is a type of pine cone scale that is particularly sharp and pointed, but other than that, the only real discomfort I experienced was from the stone cobbles of the Lake Superior beach, covered as they were with abrasive sand.

All told, the barefoot hike to the mouth of Black Creek was a dynamic tactile experience. One I could not have had while wearing shoes.