Every year Hocking Hills State Park sponsors a “Mid-Winter Hike” on the weekend near January 20. This year it was last Saturday. I’ll do the hike barefoot when I can, but it can be tricky getting the weather to cooperate with bare feet. Nonetheless, I’ve managed to do the hike in 2006, 2010, 2011, and 2013.
This year was particularly tricky.
It’s tricky because I don’t want to hurt my feet. On the other hand, if the weather cooperates, it can really impress all the other hikers (usual attendance is something from 3,000 to 5,000 people) and also let them know that bare feet really are capable of much more than they think.
I’ve found in the past that I really need the temperature to be above freezing. It also depends on how the winter is progressing. When it’s been a warm winter (for Ohio), it’s a lot easier to think about it. The forecast for last Saturday was for a high of about 48°. However, it went down to 20° the night before (very clear skies and a lot of radiative cooling) and the temperature wasn’t forecast to get above freezing until around 10:00am. And the hike itself had start times between 9:00am and 11:00am. So I needed to be extra aware and time things carefully, I felt.
The hike starts by going down into the Gorge near the upper falls, going through to Old Man’s Cave, returning to the top, then taking the A-Frame Bridge to the Rim Trail. One trouble with this is that it takes a lllloooonnnngggg time to get that many people started climbing down narrow stairs into the gorge. So a lot of time is spent standing waiting to start. Here’s a picture of a bit of that line from 2013:
In the past I’ve found this to be rather chilling. You’re just standing there and it’s not pumping much warm blood to the feet. And last Saturday, when the line was forming the temperature was still well-below freezing. So I stood around elsewhere (where it was warmer) and meanwhile the line got longer and longer.
In the end I decided to skip the upper gorge, and just start at the A-Frame Bridge.
Now, this winter has been a very cold one for us. That meant that the ground was well-frozen. We’d had a month of temperatures averaging about 20°, so that was the ground temperature, even after the air temperature rose.
That meant that my soles just weren’t able to handle it. Too much extreme cold was seeping up from the ground.
That meant that after about 1000 feet or so, it was clear to me that it would be stupid to continue trying to hike it barefoot. I did come prepared, though. I had flip-flops with me.
They actually worked quite fine. The rubber soles provided just enough insulation that the ground temperature did not reach my soles. And of course the rest of my feet were perfectly fine with an air temperature of 32° (which temperature only rose during the hike).
I hiked about 3½ miles wearing the flip-flops.
They did get a fair bit of comment, and then I had to explain that I needed them for insulation from the ground.
One other thing I noticed was that after about a mile, my knee really started bothering me. That is the effect of footwear on me. Somehow the lack of proper feedback and/or the artificial sole throwing off my gait really affects my alignment. It really illuminated, yet again, how important going barefoot really can be.
The halfway point is Cedar Falls (where they have bean soup and hot chocolate). This picture of Cedar Falls pretty-much illustrates just how cold the winter had been.
That first part of the hike is always on fairly level ground, so hiking it with flip-flops was really pretty easy (except for their effect on my knees). But on the other half, there is a fair bit of climbing and then descending. And the flip-flops just couldn’t cut it.
Snow was getting between my soles and their soles and making things slippery. So I decided I needed a better grip, and went to my moccasins.
Here I am along the trail, in my moccasins. Note it well, because you are not going to see me like this very often.
It was, um, interesting.
It was somewhat better for my knees, because I could get a better placement of my feet. It was also better in that there wasn’t any sort of hard sole to distort the way feet are supposed to be able to flex when they work. But is also cut off proprioception compared to bare feet.
On the other hand, having feet numb with cold also cuts off proprioception, doesn’t it?
I did about a mile and a half like that.
The hike ends as Ash Cave, which is a huge recess cave. This is what it looked like from near the top, on the way in.
All that ice from the waterfall gives you a pretty good feel for just how cold the winter has been. Compare that with this other picture from 2 years ago.
(This picture is shooting towards where I took this year’s picture.)
Now, the nice thing about Ash Cave is that its surface is almost all sand. The cave is carved out of sandstone, after all.
Sand is loose enough that it can absorb air temperature pretty easily, so I was able to go barefoot again without problem. In fact, I removed my moccasins at the top, before descending.
It was quite comfortable again.
[Update: I just got another picture taken by another hiker I met along the way. Here I am with Amber, just shortly after descending from the top of Ash Cave.]
Down inside, there was somebody demonstrating pioneer ways, who you can see in his buckskin jacket and mukluks. He had a fire, so I took the opportunity to warm my feet (except that they really didn’t need it).
This picture was snapped by another hiker who was intrigued. We happened to be talking on the bus back to the starting point, so I gave her my email and she sent it to me.
(The Mid-Winter Hike is a one-way hike, and then they bus you back to the beginning from the end. That works a lot better with all the people involved.)
She caught one more picture of me on my way out from Ash Cave, plodding along barefoot in the sand, on my way to the bus pickup. In the end, I did do about a half-mile of the hike barefoot.
I really cannot count this hike as having done it barefoot. It was still an interesting experience, and fun. I learned that not only air temperature is important, but so are the temperatures leading up to the hike. And I had it impressed upon me yet again just how important a natural sole and proprioception are to my being able to walk and even do more strenuous things.