Emily Ford Hiked 1,200 Miles in the Dead of Winter
In March, Emily Ford became the first woman to complete Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail in winter. She’s also become an unintentional ambassador of the outdoor industry’s quest for inclusivity.
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Just before Emily Ford became a teenager, she announced her plans for her debut long-distance hike to her mother, Paula: come Saturday morning, she was going to wake up well before dawn and trek the railroad tracks through their Minnesota neighborhood for as long as she could stand. Her mother sighed, then consented.
Around 3 A.M., Ford stirred from bed and gathered her supplies: a tub of peanut butter, a few saltines, a pack of gum, a little water bottle from Walmart. She hit her de facto route through Brooklyn Park, a large northern suburb of Minneapolis, around 5 A.M. By mid-afternoon, she’d covered 12 miles before calling her mother to pick her up.
“I loved it,” Ford, now 28, remembers. “I was such a weird kid, not super popular, an introvert who didn’t mind spending time by myself. I wanted to see how far I could get, how far my body could take me.”
In March, Ford found that the answer was at least 100 times longer—through knee-deep snow and bone-gnawing temperatures, no less. Ford became the second documented person to traverse the 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail through an unrelenting Wisconsin winter and only the 78th person to do it in any season. Accompanied by a borrowed Alaskan Husky named Diggins, she trudged south from the oddball tourist haven of Door County toward the Illinois border, then headed due north into Wisconsin’s upper latitudes until turning west and walking to the St. Croix River, the border of Minnesota.
For 69 days, Ford shuffled down paved roads, camped in any clearings she could find, devoured gas-station sandwiches, and trusted strangers in their homes amid a pandemic. She deflected locals who thought she and her dog were homeless and freezing and offered up cash. She welcomed trail magic from strangers who followed her journey online via her frank Instagram chronicles.
And during that span, Ford—a queer power lifter and career gardener whose mother is white and whose father is Black—became an unintentional avatar for increased diversity and representation outside. She is, after all, the first woman ever to finish the Ice Age Trail during the winter and one of only five people of color to finish it all. Following a summer of urgent conversations about American equity, Ford has become an empowering symbol of new possibilities.
“In the beginning, if I would have quit, maybe I would have been letting down a very small group of people. Mostly I would have let myself down; I’m just a finisher,” she says. “But by the end of this trip, so many people were watching me—I didn’t want to let anyone down.”
To wit, a documentarian, Jesse Roesler, joined Ford on the trail for several day hikes, asking her about her inspirations and exhaustion. Ford has been profiled by The Guardian, Condé Nast Traveler, and NPR, while the director of the Ice Age Trail Alliance recently told the Sierra Club that Ford’s international visibility gave the trail a welcome jolt of attention. Ford’s Instagram profile, which she started only five weeks before her hike began, has ballooned into a popular platform, not only for discussing winter gear, but also for encouraging others who aren’t “lanky white dudes,” as she puts it, to get into the woods.
“Before I left, I looked at Instagram to see what other people of color were doing on trail, hashtags like #blackfolkscamptoo or #blackpeoplehiking,” she says. “I knew that was my place in the racial justice movement. But I didn’t realize the impact it would have. It felt weird to be chosen.”
For all the conversation about Ford’s ostensible differences as a thru-hiker, her path into the woods feels like anyone else’s.
As a toddler, she would dig in the dirt alongside her mother in the family garden. Before her father left when she was five, she admired his athleticism on road bikes and during the basketball games they would share. She would pass the summer thaws on her grandparents’ farm in northern Minnesota, where her grandfather grew hybrid poplars for paper pulp and her grandmother taught her to cook the food they raised. She fished, swam, drove tractors, and made a friend whose parents took her paddling through the Boundary Waters, the intricate network of waterways and dense forests along the Canadian border.
“I realized I loved being outside—sleeping in a tent, waking up, paddling around. And when I was a kid, not having to shower may have been the biggest deal,” she says, chuckling. “Nothing really came of that trip for me, but it planted these little seeds that didn’t die.”
Instead, they lay dormant for years, despite family trips to state parks and continued romps around the farm. She struggled, meanwhile, to find her sport, trying tee-ball, basketball, cheerleading, volleyball, and even wrestling with modest success at best. But in junior high school, she found twin callings: weightlifting and the strength-driven sides of track and field, like throwing shot put and discus. At 5’9” with broad shoulders and large hands, Ford realized for the first time her size offered an athletic advantage, an epiphany she carried into a brief collegiate career as a thrower, then into a subsequent stint with rugby and an adult obsession with powerlifting.
“When you think of a normal track athlete, you think of someone who is fast, really lean, the face of Gatorade,” she says. “But throwers are very fit in a different way, so it’s a door for bigger people. It was a nice space to shine in a sport people don’t know exists. You feel so powerful.”
In college, at the small Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, the seeds stowed since her childhood Boundary Waters journey came roaring back to life. A struggling physics major, she took a geology class on a whim. After her unit rowed an inflatable dinghy into Lake Emily to take a floor sample, she was hooked. As a kid, after all, she had begged her mom to buy her cargo shorts so she could carry the rocks she collected during her walkabouts.
Soon after Ford earned her geology degree, the University of Minnesota-Duluth hired her to drive all the way to Florida, collecting seeds from prairie flowers along the way. Hotel rooms were beyond their budget, though, so they told her to camp with her new puppy, Zulu. She fell in love with backpacking in earnest en route, and, back home, began taking Zulu on trips along the 310-mile Superior Hiking Trail. She eventually thru-hiked it in tandem with the Border Route Trail, which cuts through the very Boundary Waters that had been so formative.
“I had this dual, duplicitous life in my mind,” Ford says. “Half of me went to college, became an engineer, and got filthy rich. The other half of me didn’t go to college, worked seasonal jobs, and rode trains from place to place with my dog, with just enough money to live. I have been trying to find that balance.”
And then, in the summer of 2019, during a volleyball game in the yard of a Duluth bar, she admitted to a friend she needed to get out of her city routine and back on a long trail. She had lost the balance. Her pal suggested looking into some “glacier trail” in Wisconsin, a route that traced a colossal glacier’s continental retreat 12,000 years ago.
The geologist was sold.
Ford knew from the start she would pursue her longest hike yet in the winter. As the head gardener at Glensheen Mansion, a century-old spread built by iron-mining magnates on the shore of Lake Superior in Duluth, she is occupied for three seasons every year. On social media, she searched for Mike Summers, who had finished the only documented winter hike of the Ice Age in February 2017, at the age of 26. She wanted his advice about hardships and strategies, but she never found him. In its own way, that was helpful.
“I didn’t have any doubts I could do it because I didn’t know anything about it,” says Ford, laughing nervously weeks after she finished. “There were no stories telling me I couldn’t do it. The stories about people doing it in the winter were all about people doing 100 miles and quitting. I knew I was going to do more than that.”
There was one predictable problem with her plan: Zulu couldn’t handle the cold. During a previous winter trip, Ford fretted as Zulu, a short-haired Catahoula-lab mix that was then too big to tuck inside her sleeping bag, shivered through the night. She knew this expedition would be too much.
“He is a great boy, but he is a three-season dog. You can’t justify torturing your best friend for 60 or 70 days,” she says. “They will keep going, because it is their mentality to please you.”
During a backcountry skiing trip, though, a guide told Ford about a statewide Facebook group of mushers, suggesting she post her plan there and ask if anyone had a working dog to spare. Cheri Beatty, a dog-mushing farmer two hours south of Duluth, invited Ford to meet her team in October in the sled kennel. Diggins immediately rolled over, offering Ford her underbelly. The night before she left for the trail, Diggins cavorted in her urban backyard, yipping so loudly a neighbor called the Duluth police, afraid a wild animal had invaded the neighborhood.
“You wish for so many miles to be done. When the miles get smaller, you say, ‘Wait a minute, I want this to last forever,’”
Ford loves the silence and solitude that hiking affords—or, rather, the awareness of how loud nature can be and how deafening feet crunching snow or a porcupine chewing a tree is when there’s nothing else around. She doesn’t hike with headphones or distract herself through music or podcasts, even wondering what people who do are trying to get out of their time in the woods. (After she finished the Ice Age Trail, she wore noise-canceling headphones around her home, because of the city’s din.) On the Ice Age Trail, she’d at most allow an occasional Britney Spears dance party of one, a way to warm up when at rest. For many of those 1,200 miles, she talked to herself—“self-talk,” she calls it.
Diggins became a crucial companion, a link to sanity that might tell her if she were pushing too hard. Near the start, she dropped her snowshoes and sled. So during the last two weeks, Ford was consistently postholing, moving through double-crusted snow so deep she would sink to her knees with each step. It was as exhausting as it sounds, draining an astonishing amount of energy with each step as she moved at half a mile per hour, her toes perpetually cold. And it was nerve-wracking, because she couldn’t see where each step ended.
“I would fall to my knees, hold Diggins, and hug her. I would literally tell her, ‘Keep pulling me forward. Don’t let me stop,’” Ford says. “It was so mind-numbingly difficult.”
On February 21, just before that dreaded postholing intensified, Diggins turned three on trail. Ford broke the silence by singing her “Happy Birthday,” feeding her extra beef sticks, and hunting for a dog-sized birthday hat in a Wisconsin hamlet. On March 6, when Ford finally reached the Minnesota border, Beatty was there to take Diggins home.
“You wish for so many miles to be done. When the miles get smaller, you say, ‘Wait a minute, I want this to last forever,’” she says. “I was bawling at the end, because it all happened so fast.”
For weeks after Ford was finished, a photo of Diggins hung above Ford’s desk. In late April, she and her partner, Flo, became a family of four when they officially adopted Diggins.
During her 69 days on the Ice Age Trail, Ford paid more attention to the skies than the headlines. Often without cellphone service, she studied the cloud ceiling and its density; she began to intuit when a storm might encroach by feeling the pressure on her skin. She also paid less attention to the COVID-19 pandemic than she might have hoped. Given the weather or the state of her supplies, she depended some nights on the kindness of strangers offering their homes. And she didn’t pay close attention to her own burgeoning status as some wilderness-equity figurehead. She almost turned down Roesler, the documentarian, because she wasn’t on trail to make a point.
Ford hiked, instead, for many of the same reasons that “lanky white dudes” or anyone else might take to the woods: to pay attention to herself, to have space to think through the life she had led for 28 years and where she wanted it to go. She faced down the person she had been, especially as an overconfident college student who didn’t come out until several years after school.
“I’m sure I hurt people in the tussle of figuring out who I was,” she says. “On trail, I could go back into my memories and be angry with myself. There’s no one else on the trail but you.”
And, of course, she was in the woods to reconnect to nature, to be surrounded by nothing but it—an extreme version of what she found on her grandparents’ farm, during her first paddling trip in the Boundary Waters, in her gardens at the mansion.
“When I’m backpacking, I can come back to knowing who I am. It resets something inside of me,” says Ford. “Waking, eating, hiking, sleeping: your rhythm is back in line with all that nature is asking of you.”