During their ignominious retreat from Russia in 1812, many of the soldiers in Napoleon’s vanquished and depleted army felt their feet go numb then watched helplessly as they turned blue in some cases and red in others. As the agonizing march wore on, the vile stench from their rotting feet sickened the affected troops. The feet of the French fighting men then began to swell; those of the least fortunate blistered, became covered in sores, were invaded by opportunistic fungus, then became gangrenous and had to be amputated.
First documented by one Dr. Larrey, a French surgeon who lopped off a few of those sad feet, this gruesome affliction reappeared and became rampant in the trenches during World War One. Notwithstanding the fact that troops wore significantly improved footwear manufactured specifically for them by the North British Rubber Company, their feet still got wet and remained wet for protracted periods causing the same symptoms Dr. Larrey had observed.
To fight trench foot, as it came to be known thereafter, the British Generals issued a command to the effect that each and every soldier was from then on responsible for the care and tending of the feet of another specific soldier. Making it a duty to keep a compatriot’s feet dry and clean (done with treatments of whale oil) considerably reduced the cases of trench foot.
After the Second World War trench foot became rare until the advent of giant rock music festivals in Britain, where devotees of bands like Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, and Metallica came down with trench foot after standing in the open under sodden British skies for days.
Had the troops in the Great War been wearing boots that came to their waist or chest, trench foot would not have been a problem. Such boots, or waders, were available at the time, the first having been manufactured and marketed by the Hodgman Company of Framingham, Massachusetts in 1838. Since then chest waders have been used by duck hunters, anglers, ATV riders, agriculture workers, water-supply workers, and pastors doing full-immersion baptism.
Heavy duty chest waders are standard equipment in the chemical industry and in mining. My first pair of chest waders were made for the latter. Appropriately called Miner Chest Waders, and manufactured in Quebec for use underground, Miners, as they were known to us, were a staple in the B.C. angling community. With treads like those found on deck boots, no belt loops for a wading belt, and no ankle support. Miners may have been dandy for working below ground but they were downright dangerous when worn in moving water. Despite these drawbacks, and the fact that being constructed of vulcanized rubber stuck to canvas reduced the boots’ flexibility thus severely restricting the mobility of the user, we wore them, often without a belt.
A spill in Miners meant their wearer was instantly packing from fifty to a hundred pounds of water within his waders. A wading belt might reduce the weight of this aqueous anchor by half or more, but if an angler took a dip there was no chance of swimming to safety and a real chance of hypothermia and/or drowning.
River anglers soon learn that moss covered rocks are considerably more secure than those that aren’t. Some of them also noticed that their living room carpets were very similar in texture to moss. Soon anglers appeared on the river extolling the newly found stability of their carpeted boots. It wasn’t long before we were cutting up lengths of indoor/outdoor carpeting and felt then gluing them to the ground smooth soles of our Miners with barge cement.
Miners predated the revolution in outdoor wear and the invention of breathable fabric. They were the same thickness as a commercial fisherman’s raincoat. They kept water out and kept sweat in. We made long sticky bushwhacks in them then stood waist high in cold rivers and let the sweat on our sweat soaked bodies chill.
Miners were rugged. We tore then patched them with bicycle patches and contact cement. After a couple of years they expired. They were annoying and uncomfortable, but all we had. To be sure, there were other waders similar to Miners. Some had belt loops. A few came with pre felted boots, but they weren’t much better and cost a lot more.
Around this time, I saw ads in fishing magazines for a stocking foot wader called Seal Dri. The US company claimed their latex waders were flexible and seamless. There was no on-line ordering then, there not being any internet. Ordering by mail was hassle, but I did so after seeing a pair of Seal Dris on Peter Broomhall.
Pete is a tall, long legged fellow who had a lot of trouble with the low crotches on Miners. He ingeniously solved this problem by cutting the feet of a pair of Seal Dris, which he then glued to the tops of a solid pair of gum boots using contact cement. As added protection for his seamless waders, Pete wore a pair of light rain pants over them.