Some things just go well together. Whether by accident, innovation, invention or necessity, marriages between certain products can be a thing of beauty. It might be that each could stand just fine on its own but the pairing creates a near perfect complementary match. Take for instance, peanut butter and jelly, chips and salsa, or a bat and ball. In the outdoors world, we find no shortage of such partnerships in things like Hoppes No. 9 cleaning solvent and Remington shotguns, Old Town canoes and wooden paddles, or deer and truck beds. A couple years back, I discovered another match made in heaven: L.L. Bean boots and bear grease.
In 1912, Leon Leonwood Bean, tired of having wet feet while hunting in leather boots, single-stitched leather uppers to rubber, shoe-like bottoms and sold 100 pairs of what he dubbed the Maine Hunting Shoe. Nearly all of those were returned, citing issues with the rubber and leather tearing due to the single-stitch method of attaching the materials. Bean remedied the problem by replacing his single stitch with triple-stitching. A masterpiece was born and a legacy created. One of the most recognizable outdoor brands in existence, L.L. Bean revolutionized outdoor footwear and his boots are a favorite choice for outdoor enthusiasts throughout the world.
Light, comfortable and durable, Bean boots come in a variety of styles and plethora of colors. I’ve seen green, brown, gray, blue and even red ones. There are tall ones, short ones, even canvass, lace-less and ones with zippers. You can find them lined, unlined, insulated, uninsulated or any other variant you can think of. Today, they have a large presence in the fashion world, often worn untied with skinny jeans by the more youthful and trend savvy.
I’ve owned numerous pairs over the years and my personal choice is the tried and true 12-inch, uninsulated Maine Hunting Shoe. I’ve walked, hiked, fished and hunted hundreds of miles in them, both for work and play, and they perform well in most any situation. I use them hard and made the mistake years ago with my first pair of not taking good care of them. I learned from my mistakes and vowed to be better.
Not that there’s all that much that goes into taking care of Bean boots but they should be inspected for wear and tear, the laces replaced when needed and most importantly, the leather should be conditioned to help protect and waterproof it. Through the years, I’ve used a number of conditioning products such as Sno Seal, mink oil and even olive oil, which was recommended to me by a friend. While they all worked fairly well, it always seemed to wear off quickly and inevitably after hard use, water would seep in at the seam between the leather and rubber. There had to be a better way.
Several years ago, when I took up bear hunting, I didn’t know all that much about bear fat, its value or many of its uses. I’m truly ashamed to say that I threw the fat away from the first couple bears I killed and that still haunts me today.
Bear fat is an incredible thing and I’ll never waste it again. Over time, it’s been used for everything from cooking applications to lubrication for firearms, lantern oil and even hair and skin salves. Early on, it was recognized and highly prized for its excellent leather waterproofing and conditioning applications. While we don’t typically render our own bear fat, we do save it and give it to a few friends who are more than happy to. One such friend, Cathy Matthieu, in return for the fat we gave her from a beautiful bear I took a couple years ago, provided us with two jars of the snow-white gold. While we used the majority of it for cooking, I decided to go old-school and try it out on my Bean boots.
The recipe I used was simple: three parts bear fat and one-part odorless paraffin trappers wax, which I heated together in a pot just enough to mix well then poured into plastic containers and an old mink oil tin to cool. To condition the boots, I followed the process, which is the same as any other similar product — heat the leather with a blow dryer then a liberal amount of grease and wipie off the excess. I took time to apply more around the stitched areas, pushing the grease in as far as I could. I was skeptical at first but after wearing the boots for several weeks turkey hunting, I was convinced that bear grease was the only way to go, as it kept them remarkably well protected and waterproof. I’ve re-applied every four or so months the last two years and the boots still look and perform like new.
I love bears and I love Bean boots. I don’t know why or how it works, nor do I really care all that much. It’s simple and I’m just happy we get to enjoy another way using parts of an animal we chose to harvest. I’m not sure if her stance was principled or if there was some other underlying reason why but up until recently, my girlfriend Emily, a dyed in the wool Mainer, had never owned a pair of Bean boots. She took notice, however, of how well mine performed during our snowshoeing jaunts this winter and bought herself a beautiful pair of 10-inch buffalo plaid-lined, signature L.L. Bean boots.
When she brought them home that afternoon, she smiled and asked, “So, where’s that bear grease?”