Throughout her icy, 10-week, 1,135-mile trek, Emily Ford found comfort in one thing: sharing king-sized Rice Krispie treats with Diggins, her Alaskan Husky companion on Wisconsin’s formidable Ice Age Trail.
The 28-year-old Ford completed the trail on March 6, making history as only the second person on record to complete the thru-hike in winter. Ford, who is Black, is the first person of color to achieve this milestone, but she’s modest in speaking of her accomplishment: “There’s tons of other people doing this also, so it’s not like I’m a revolutionary person or anything like that.”
The Minnesota native grew up in a suburb of the Twin Cities and now lives in Duluth with her partner Flo and their dog Zulu. Ford hikes with Zulu in warmer weather, but knew he couldn’t handle a trek of this distance in below-freezing temperatures. So when someone suggested she post in a mushers (sled dogs) group on Facebook about borrowing one, she thought it was a great suggestion—a trail buddy to keep her company and also to help with the physical load.
Ford began contemplating the trek in the summer of 2019, asking a volleyball teammate for suggestions for winter hikes that could be done in a couple months. Ford says that when “2020 exploded and exploded again,” especially with so many prominent conversations over social justice, she came to the realization that she could use hiking to contribute in a meaningful way.
“I know many, many POC who don’t want to be alone outside, especially in the dark, especially in the rural Midwest, and I wanted to help open the door,” says Ford, who is a professional gardener with time off in the winter. Since she started sharing her journey on social media—she only signed up for an Instagram account late last year—Ford says she’s heard from so many underrepresented groups, such as people of color, women, and the LGBTQ+ communities. “I check a lot of boxes, man.”
She wasn’t new to long hikes—she had previously completed Minnesota’s 300-mile Superior Hiking Trail—or winter camping and did not view the cold climate, in the Midwest no less, as a particular hardship. Though Ford loves the stillness and quiet of winter, she made sure to listen to her body—and sought help from others when temperatures dropped to 37 degrees below freezing. For several nights she took respite in the homes of strangers, who she calls “trail angels.”
Unlike other thru-hikes she’s done, Ford didn’t really have a trail family, a group of hikers that meets and hikes together, on the Ice Age Trail; she doesn’t believe there were any other overnight hikers ahead or behind her. As word of Ford’s endeavor got out, however, people showed up along the way to take pictures and proffer snacks. One content studio, Credo Nonfiction, ended up hanging with Ford and Diggins on trail, filming them for a few days. The film is in post-production.
There were challenges along the way, including unfathomably cold temperatures and concerns over fuel for cooking, but Ford says she never once considered stopping short. “I was pretty committed to finishing the trail,” Ford says, adding that she planned to complete her goal no matter how long it took.
No matter how lonely, too. In spite of being accustomed to trekking alone (canine companionship notwithstanding), Ford admits she frequently felt isolated on the trail. “Most people are not designed to be alone all the time,” she says. Before this, Ford’s longest thru-hike was 300-odd miles on the Superior Hiking Trail, which whet her appetite for long-distance hiking. Going solo on the Ice Age Trail was Ford showing others, especially others who are scared of being alone, outside, in the dark, in rural areas, that it’s safe.
Her overall message, in this and future potentially record-setting hikes? “You can do it too.”
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