First Woman Hiker to Complete the Ice Age Trail in Winter
Minnesota native Emily Ford and her sled dog companion, Diggins, are true advocates for the outdoors and are uniting people across racial and cultural lines through their many athletic achievements. In December 2020, Ford and Diggins embarked on a life-changing expedition that made Ford the first woman and person of color ever documented to complete a winter thru-hike of the 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail. This National Scenic Trail passes through 30 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, and the western end of the trail finishes at Interstate State Park along the St. Croix River.
Ford’s inspiring message throughout her journey was that the outdoors is for everyone and that she hopes others can overcome their fears and enjoy the power of nature. A 30-minute documentary about Ford’s hike, Breaking Trail, debuted at Banff Mountain Film Festival, and you can follow along on all of her adventures via her Instagram account @emilyontrail.
Ford shared some lessons she learned while traversing the Ice Age Trail in just 69 days. We hope her story continues to inspire people to explore and feel safe while doing so.
- Start with the big idea/goal that you can’t get out of your head and find people in your circle that support that idea.
- Have a plan and be prepared to throw it all out.
- Take a buddy. Diggins was a borrowed sled dog who ended up being the perfect dog for me. She’s an Alaskan husky, and we developed a fantastic relationship on this journey.
- Brace for roadblocks. You have all these plans when embarking on a journey, but especially in the winter months, you’ll be faced with barriers. There were parts of the trail that were gated off, possibly closed for years. And the cold can definitely be a challenge. I was faced with -23 degrees and wind chills between -40 and -50 for a good couple of weeks. Injuries can also happen and add a level of frustration that you have to tough through.
- Lean on people (or dog). I learned that a little kindness goes a long way. People left signs of encouragement and treats for me and Diggins that helped us continue to press on. We couldn’t have done this without the kindness of people along the way.
- It is difficult, but it’s not impossible. I learned this from a fourth-grader who left me a sign on the trail. “Push yourself … ’cause no one is going to do it for you.” Even when the snow was super deep, I would learn that it was worth it. There are these quiet spaces that you can only see if it’s in the middle of winter and you’re on foot. The snow makes you slow down; it changes things.
- Keep leaning in to community. Build community; it only takes two. Diggins and I became a pack, and the community showed us so much support.
- You have to rest. Don’t be a hero. I ended up taking three zero travel days but should have taken more.
- Emotions are real. All people are real people. I had to learn really quickly that you are your own hero, but you are also your own worst enemy all at the same time. At the end of the trip, I had to say goodbye to Diggins, and I realized all these emotions that built up over the trip came to a huge breaking point at the end. Saying goodbye to her was still one of the hardest things I had to do. Luckily, she lives with me now, but it still weighs heavy in my heart.
- Remember your impact. Why do this in the first place? You never know who is paying attention to what you are doing, especially little kids. There are a lot of people of color who are afraid of the outdoors for an onslaught of reasons. I think one of the main reasons is because they think people of color aren’t supposed to like the outdoors, and of course that stems from the history of black people fearing the outdoors especially at night. It’s helpful when there’s someone like you doing the things you may be interested in doing. You’ll never know if you like the outdoors unless you try it. I hope to be that inspiration, especially to kids.
Follow along on Ford’s adventures on Instagram: @emilyontrail
Read more of our stories in Issue 22 of Lake and Company.