Why This Man Goes Barefoot on His Annual BWCA Trips

St. Cloud native Mark Zimmer goes shoeless during months-long Boundary Waters visits to up his game and honor his family
Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Josh Hild/Unsplash

Josh Hild/Unsplash

Mark Zimmer is a champion of the north woods. Though Zimmer has visited the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) since he was a child, it wasn’t until about eight years ago that he began, as he puts it, “taking it seriously” and going for long-haul expeditions. Zimmer had been living in St. Cloud, working in construction, but he wanted a change—a feeling many of us have known. So he journeyed into one of the largest areas of pure wilderness east of the Rockies.

The process was gradual. First, Zimmer used his mom’s home in Ely as a base camp for day trips and short overnights in the Boundary Waters. This triggered a desire to spend more time with nature. Now, each year, at the onset of May, when the ice begins to melt back into clear waters, Zimmer heads into the BWCA. His journeys evolved from two months at a time to five. “That year was a learning curve,” Zimmer says. “Everything after that has been progressively easier.”

Still, heading into the woods alone for such long periods of time inherently posed some challenges. A flipped kayak through cascading rapids, lost glasses, a broken fishing rod, and bug bites galore are just a few of the situations Zimmer has dealt with, but his resilient attitude never wavers. He describes that flipped kayak situation as “not too bad” and reflects on his toughest obstacles with a humble confidence. “You take it all with a grain of salt, and everything you put into it you get out of it. Really, it all depends on the attitude you go in there with,” he says.

Image of a Pitcher plant in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA)
A pitcher plant Zimmer captured with his camera in the BWCA

Mark Zimmer

Overcoming hurdles in the back country is almost part of the fun for Zimmer; in fact, each year he tries to challenge himself in a new way.

In 2020, Zimmer was unable to begin his yearly trip on time due to camping restrictions in the BWCA, and the rest of Minnesota, related to COVID-19. Now that primitive overnight camping for single households is permitted, he plans to make the most out of social distancing and find solitude by exploring the Boundary Water’s Primitive Management Areas (PMA). He will bushwhack his way through these unmanaged areas and explore land that has not been grazed in years, if ever.

Other years have been less intense, like when Zimmer decided to explore the Boundary Waters from a different vantage point. He studied the topographic maps on his phone (which he charges with a portable solar charger) to find the highest points around lakes, and from there he climbed the cliffs. “The views are just tremendous, and certain points you can see for miles and miles and miles,” he says.

Another year, he transitioned to “barefooting” to honor his grandfather, who would go barefoot around the house. “I always thought he was on to something,” Zimmer says, “so when he passed away about five or six years ago, I came back to the BWCA after the funeral, took my shoes off and said, this day is for you Grandpa.” He portaged and canoed a nearly 30-mile loop that day, all while barefoot.

But barefooting is more than a tribute to his grandfather. It provides support while portaging that shoes cannot. “When the rocks get wet—and there’s rocks everywhere—they’re slippery,” Zimmer says. “I’ve seen a lot of people fall and it’s scary because you don’t want to get hurt up there.” Being barefoot allows him to manipulate his toes and grasp onto surfaces much more easily. And since Zimmer knows this is not something many people do, he enjoys having fun with it: “I like to leave barefoot tracks in mud just to mess with people.” So be on the lookout, fellow hikers!

Before Zimmer headed up to the Boundary Waters this year, we were able to connect about his favorite spots, wildlife encounters, and how rose flowers jazz up a foraged salad.

What’s a typical day for you in the BWCA?

I get up, make myself some breakfast, and decide whether or not I’m going to travel. (Before I used to travel and see as much as I could, and now, because I try to sustain 40-60% of my calories off land, I just go places seasonally where food is most accessible.) Then if I do travel, I pack myself up and paddle until I’m ready for the next spot. … I will go hiking around usually too. I look for a lot of the old trails that aren’t maintained anymore. I try to go see the less accessible lakes.

What kind of food do you enjoy?

I fish every day. Some days it’s lake trout (but you can’t eat lake trout for too many days in a row because they’re oily). But walleye and pike I eat a lot. Spring is your green season: dandelions, thistle, Canada mayflower, and ruby lily. Then you start to get into rose flowers, which are super sweet. It’s another thing to add to my greens … and it makes them look pretty. Then comes June, and you get into strawberries and blueberries.

I bring wild rice with me, and everything goes with wild rice, like cranberries from shorelines. I bring pancake mix too, but cranberries don’t really mix in with pancake mix. So, I usually make pancakes then boil cranberries in maple syrup and use it as a topping. Out there you must prepare things differently, which I guess I’ve just learned over the years. I still think there’s enough yeast on a blueberry to make some wine: I haven’t figured it out yet, though.

Why do you choose this lifestyle?

When I’m out there [in the Boundary Waters] I can live how I want and make each day what I want of it. When I’m in town we really don’t have that option; we’re kind of stuck doing the same routine over and over. Of course, we all have to do that because we all need money, but if I can avoid that as much as possible. I think it’s better, it’s healthier for me. I really choose to go up there because I feel like I’ve found a home there.

How has this lifestyle changed you?

It definitely makes me a more generous person. If I see somebody who’s struggling with something, of course I’ll go up and help. Another thing is when I go up there, when I have a problem, it’s a real problem. And I come back to town I hear people complaining about a lot of things, and I’m just like, these aren’t problems. What are you guys complaining about? … Also, it seems to be a thing to be in a hurry here all the time, and there, it’s the opposite. The slower you go, the more you get to enjoy, the better it is.

How would you describe your encounters with people along the way?

Right off the bat you have something in common with somebody, which is nice because you always have a conversation to be had with people. Of course, there’s a lot of Boy Scout groups and Outward Bound, so when you run into those people you try to teach them a little bit. Like, hey you guys can be eating this or that, or here is what’s ripe right now. I try to give a little bit of advice to the people around me.

What kind of encounters with wildlife have you had?

I see more moose on the Gunflint side and especially in the burnt areas (from the 2006 and 2010 fire). I also see a lot of bears over there because that’s where the good food is. But I’ve seen bears all over the place—I actually had one eat my food bag a few years ago. It wasn’t a big deal. … I got it back ha-ha. So I think that’s kind of cool. I ran over there. I wasn’t scared of it and he wasn’t scared of me either, ha-ha. We exchanged glances. You can relate to animals through their eyes and their actions.

Occasionally I get animal chases (like rabbits and fishers) through my campsite. I’ve also seen a rabbit swim before to get away from a fisher, which is kind of neat.

Do you have any favorite go-to spots in the BWCA?

I really like Knife Lake. It’s really long and big, so, you have the opportunity to catch huge fish, and there’s a variety of fish in there. There are also big cliffs everywhere on Knife you can climb. Plus, you have Eddy Falls, which I think is one of the nicest waterfalls in the boundary waters. A lot of people go there of course, it’s a destination point. But it is beautiful.

What advice would you give to someone planning a trip to the BWCA?

Go slow. It seems like most people have their agendas and try to get there so they can beat somebody else to the campsite that they want to go to. They think that the campsites are going to make a difference. It makes no difference at all. It doesn’t matter.

This interview was edited for style, length, and clarity. For other nature escapes besides the BWCA, check out our pandemic-approved guide.

Taking a barefoot trip in the BWCA creates no additional risks for transmission during the COVID-19 outbreak, according to Dr. Peter Raynor, an environmental health sciences professor at the University of Minnesota. Still, barefooting can result in injuries if done without proper training. Minnesota Monthly does not endorse barefoot camping. Do it at your own risk.