What’s in a Boot?

My Foot, of Course!

Let’s face it, I have wonky feet. Well, I think everyone has wonky feet. We have long toes or short toes, high arches or flat. We have lumps and twists and bulges that make our feet unique and uniquely hard to fit for comfortable hiking. On Isle Royale’s rugged trails, my feet need protection from trail impediments, and my boots need to dry quickly and simply be comfortable. I just want happy feet.

My quest for happy feet has lasted for years. In the late 1990s, I found my best boots and started a long and fruitful hiking career with them. They have been to Banff, Glacier, the Rockies, and more, each time standing up to rocks, gravel, ridges, and, well, glaciers. Since I had them for so long, I realized I needed to start looking for a replacement with equivalent comfort and durability. Of course, I didn’t expect a replacement to last 15 years, but I couldn’t help but hope for the protection and comfort that I was used to with my old boots.

Duane’s Vasques at left on the Bench; My Oboz at center on the ground at Campsite 1, Little Todd

Still, at the start of my Isle Royale hiking experiences in 2014, I chose my very, very old Vasque leather mid-high hiking boots for my first foray out that year because I loved them. My Vasques were indestructible; they were my sturdy boots, best for the worst of trails. I valued their comfort in spite of their scratches and scars. On that hike, more than once I pounded my toes on rocks and roots with no issue to my feet. Did I say I loved those boots?

But like everything–and certainly after a decade and a half–boots wear out. I had to admit that the soles were starting to lean outward with the years of hiking, and on close inspection I realized that the reason my heels were starting to feel warm was because I had worn through the padding at the back. At the end of that season–in year 15 of the life of my Vasques, my feet were no longer happy. Reluctantly, I retired the boots and began my quest for a satisfactory replacement in earnest.

Sandals Are not Great Camp Shoes

Thinking to replicate the durability, comfort, and longevity of my original boots, I bought a new pair of Vasques. They were breathable and looked very similar to my old leather ones. They were that reddish-brown color. At the outfitters, the new Vasques felt fine as I trod up and down the artificial incline that looked like a cornhole board in the shoe department. They even seemed okay when I hiked about my neighborhood and climbed the goat trail at the Sturgeon River Gorge. With my new, light and breathable Vasques, I thought I was set.

But 2015 proved to be a tough year for my feet. On the first hike with the new Vasques, they started out okay, but as they settled into their final shape, I found that the front of my foot tended to flop around in the boot, regardless of how tightly I tied them. After a few hours in them, I felt as though I were hiking with a small pair swimming fins on my feet, going flup, flup, flup with each step. I looked at Duane’s Vasques, and he had no such issue. He was touting the great fit and comfort to everyone who asked. I felt a little miserable because my feet were not happy in my boots. I wanted my old pair back.

After that first hike, I changed for a pair of Columbia hiking shoes. I went to the outfitters again, and I tried on every shoe and boot in my size in the store and settled on the Columbias. I wore them on practice hikes near my home, and they seemed okay. They weren’t great, but they did not overheat my feet, and my feet did not flop around. On the first day on Isle Royale, however, I found that I had to keep stopping to empty my shoes, especially on the overgrown areas where I was walking through brush. It was kind of awkward to find places to sit down and take my shoes off. Pine needles and twigs are really irritating in the shoe.

The Merrell Vapor Glove works for a Water Shoe, but not a good Hiking Shoe

Still looking for the right pair, on the third hike that year, I tried a pair of Oboz. I bought my customary size, which was an 8.5 M. I hiked with them locally, and they seemed fine. On the island with my full pack, however, I found that my toes touched lightly on the front of the boot. This ended up being a big pain–literally–when hiking over the rocks and roots. After the first three days, my toes were really sore. While my backpack got progressively a little lighter each day, it didn’t make a difference. My feet were unhappy, and I was glad to get the boots off each evening. My toenails felt tender, as though they were insistently being pressed into my cuticles, and the sensation became sharper and sharper over time.

I went to the island only once in 2016, and I opted for my ancient Vasques which were pulled out of retirement for this service. I did not want a repeat of the sore feet I had the previous year. The old Vasques might be heavy and hot, they might take a long time to dry, they might be leaning a little, but they still felt better on my feet than the others I tried the year before. Okay, they were heavy, and their cushioning was worn out, making them less than optimal, but they didn’t hurt my feet. That is the first and primary must-have for good boots.

8.5 M Oboz

For the first hike out in 2017, I opted for trail runners, trying to switch it up in my quest. I found a great pair of Sauconys and they worked well. They were light. They were comfortable, didn’t hurt my toes, and dried quickly after slogging through muddy spots on the trail. I was in love–and so were my feet. They tightened properly and didn’t fill with debris or flop around on my feet.

The second hike that year started out well with my happy feet. I was never so happy with how shoes fit and felt, even under the weight of my pack. Even scampering up onto ridges for the best views, shoes gripped the rocks and stayed secure. I felt good until I was hiking into Hatchet Lake campground, coming from Windigo after stops at Island mine and South Lake Desor campgrounds. As I climbed down into the Hatchet Lake campground, I scraped my foot on a jagged rock sticking up into the trail and split the side of my shoe. Obviously I saw the scrape mark on my shoe, but I didn’t really notice the extent of the damage until I trudged into the campground and my shoe wouldn’t sit properly on my foot anymore. I ended up duct taping it (that was a fashion statement), which worked for the remaining few days back into Rock Harbor.

Undaunted, after that hike, I bought another pair of trail runners–they were that comfortable!. Unfortunately, Saucony upgraded their designs, and I couldn’t buy the same style that had fit so well. When I tried the new model on, they fit like the earlier new Vasque boots–I couldn’t get them to tie securely on the front of my foot so I felt as though my feet were flopping around. And I truly wasn’t thrilled with fact that they were not as durable as hiking boots. I didn’t even try hiking in them.

For my first hike of 2018, I was beginning to feel a bit disillusioned on my quest for the perfect footwear. Yes, I know I have some wonky feet, but someone must make a boot or shoe that would work for my needs on the island. Trying to replicate the trail runner experience with a sturdier shoe, I bought two pairs of hiking shoes, one from Solomon and another from Keen, figuring I would take whichever pair worked best. I spent a lot of time hiking on the North Country Trail through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to prepare. Sections of that trail are similar to Isle Royale trails in their geography. Both pairs of the shoes seemed okay, but I opted for the Keens on the initial hike on the island because they seemed to tie better, which mattered for keeping twigs and debris out.

Crossing the Beaver Dam in Keen Hiking Shoes

It was a so-so hike with the Keens. They weren’t bad shoes, but my feet simply were not in love. On the next hike that summer, I tried the Solomons. They were okay, but my feet were not as happy as they had been with the first Saucony trail runners or with my ancient leather Vasques. Walking down the trail, I found myself thinking about my Vasques. They were from back in the day, the oxblood leather Vasque boots with the round laces, from way back when Gore-Tex was a new thing for boots. The Keens on my feet were a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, and I wanted a 10 for comfort and for durability. I should not be reminiscing about old boots with a brand new pair on my feet.

In 2019, for the first trip out, I bought a pair of Oboz in early April and really worked to break them in for hiking in July and August on Isle Royale. I liked how the first pair of 8.5s fit–without the backpack–so this time I bought a size 9, putting aside the sense that I had gargantuan feet that might actually flup, flup, flup on their own. For a hiking boot, a size 9 was the trick for me. I had the mid-high boot that kept out a lot (not all) of the trail debris, protection against rocks and roots, and blessed comfort. These criteria are top priority for me. I actually used those boots for three years. Yes, they are that durable and worth their cost. I was pleased to spend so little–one pair is certainly much less than three each year–and three years on one pair was downright cheap.

But the trail runners ruined me with their airiness, for the downside of hiking boots is that they can be really warm, so my feet overheat. In 2020, though, when Duane and I went late season during the pandemic, I was happy for the warmth of my size 9 Oboz. By the time of my first hike in 2022, though, we were hiking the ridges in peak season, so I was back in the hunt for new footwear yet again.

Size 9 Oboz with Gaiters

As Duane and I hiked the Minong Ridge Trail in over the Labor Day weekend last year, I paid attention to other woman’s feet, and I noticed three different women in trail runners that looked sturdier than my Sauconys that were split by the rock. They all had the same peachy-orange colored shoe. Did I say three different women, each of whom spontaneously shared how great their feet felt in the their trail runners? Spontaneously. Great! One even said that she ordered four pairs of them so that she would be well supplied in the event that the manufacturer upgraded their model.

So, on my first trip out on June 2, I will be wearing a pair of LA Sportiva trail runners–size 9–in the peachy-orange color. I ordered them and tried them out in the neighborhood last fall, but I didn’t get any real hiking in before the snow came, so I will make sure to trail test them prior to going to the island. I will keep you posted about how well they hold up, if my feet are protected, and if they are comfortable. When I trotted around the block and up the hill wearing them, my feet were smiling. Maybe they will be perfect, maybe not, but I have hope. For sure, they will serve their purpose for mid-season hiking. For late season, I will likely use my Oboz.

Finally, I guess there is no such thing as a perfect shoe or boot for anyone, wonky feet or not. Certainly, there is no perfect boot or shoe that works for everyone or one that works in every season. There isn’t even a boot that is consistently perfect for any one person, unless you are Duane with his perfect pair of Vasques..

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