One boot step on frozen ground after another, Emily Ford is making history. On December 28, she set out from Potawatomi State Park, Wisconsin, on Sturgeon Bay to walk the length of the Ice Age Trail. She hopes to arrive at St. Croix Falls on the border with her home state of Minnesota at the end of March.
When she gets there, the 28-year-old will be the first Black woman to complete the entire 1,200-mile trail and the first woman to complete it in winter.
Ford is accompanied by Diggins, an Alaska husky on loan from a dog sled kennel. The cold would be too much for her own dog, who is at home with Ford’s partner in Duluth, Minnesota. Ford is carrying her tent and other gear on her back, and Diggins is toting her own supplies, which include a bell and light, orange colors in the event of hunters, a coat for very cold weather, a food and water bowl, and Musher’s Secret balm for her paws.
Friends drop by provisions once a week, which is also when Ford posts on her Instagram account Emilyontrail and checks messages. Matador connected with Emily via her weekly Instagram check-ins. We asked her to tell us about an unexpected bright spot of her journey.
“The people who let me camp on their lawns always make me feel so loved,” Ford told us. She adds, “Like sometimes it gets too late so I have to just knock on doors and hope the person is nice and says yes.”
From the onset, Ford included camping on private property in her planning. That’s in part because campgrounds are currently closed — both because of COVID-19 and because of the winter season. But finding creative places to camp has also been necessary because the entirety of the Ice Age Trail is not actually open.
One of only 11 National Scenic Trails — among the others are the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail — the Ice Age Trail carves a meandering path across Wisconsin, first heading south on the Door Peninsula with stretches along Lake Michigan along the state’s eastern edge. Then the trail u-turns just 10 miles from the Illinois border and heads north again through the middle of the state. Near the north end of Wisconsin, the Ice Age Trail turns east and curves its way to its endpoint on the border with Minnesota.
The trail is so named because its unique landscape was carved by receding glaciers from the last ice age about 12,000 years ago — leaving behind odd hills called kames or drumlins, depending on their shape; stratified areas called eskers; outwash plains where glaciers ended; and many, many lakes. The trail is supported by the Ice Age Trail Alliance, which is working to see it completed all the way through.
In areas where the trail is unfinished, it has occasionally involved hiking on paved roads. When I first checked in with Ford, that had been one of the few issues for her. “Just a couple of body hiccups,” she’d written — since walking on hard surfaces is so much harder on the knees.
Ford likes long-distance treks, and winter is when she can do them. She is the head gardener at Glensheen Mansion, a historic house operated by the University of Minnesota, and given the limitations of gardening during a Midwest winter, the cold months are Ford’s time off. She also told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she loves winter as she’s not a fan of mosquitos, both of which make the colder months ideal for trekking.
As Ford wrote on her Instagram, she had the good fortune to stay a couple of nights in a heated outbuilding along the trail, giving herself and Diggins the rest they needed. She also refers to the “trail angels” who she has met along the way and the “trail magic” of so much love.
“The people have been great! Having Diggins along has been awesome,” Ford messaged me.
Ford is now headed northward through the middle of Wisconsin, after completing the southward stretch. On her most recent post notes, she writes that the town of Lodi is “quite awesome.” Ford said Lodi’s middle school has a “Trail Trekkers” program, and its students had left her signs at the trailheads. Notes Ford with a few heart and laugh emojis: “The best line from one of the students was, ‘Push through this hike, because no one else will do it for you!’ Tough love from a middle schooler.”
When she recently reached the halfway point, well-wishers from the county came to cheer her on. Beyond the assistance from locals and online support on her Instagram and her Facebook, Ford’s journey has also been reported by TV news programs and newspapers in her native Minnesota and in Wisconsin. That’s a good thing because, following 2020, Ford felt that setting a positive example is an important part of the trek.
“2020 started happening and unfolding itself and with the murder of George Floyd over in Minnesota and other stuff happening in other states, I’m just like, man, there’s got to be a way that I also can get my voice out there too for people of color and just continue to equalize the boundaries,” Ford told local TV station WMTV.
“Many other people have completed this trail, but winter is the elusive season for most folks. So I’ll be the first woman, the first Black woman, and I’m sure the first Black gay woman. I’ll tack that one on there!” Ford told WMTV.
While we’re seeing more BIPOC outdoor influencers, many of these are located in coastal states. Ford said she was originally seeking hiking companions but didn’t find any in the Midwest. “I checked out message boards and did some research on the internet to find a partner, looking for other people of color who are interested in backpacking or hiking. There are a lot of groups like that on the coasts and in the south, but I didn’t find much in the Midwest,” Ford told her alma mater Gustavus Adolphus College.
Ford’s journey is changing that by showing that BIPOC outdoor lovers are also in her part of the world. As she posted, “For the people who look like me and are afraid to spend a night under the stars. I don’t want others to be deprived of such calm and beauty because of societal fear.”
She continues: “I want people to know that literally ANYONE can play outdoors. No matter which boxes you do or do not check. Through my time backpacking, I’ve never really met another Brown person backpacking, skiing, or mountain biking. I know that Brown people are outdoors (I see it on Instagram now!) But I want to add to the story.”
One reason encouraging others to get outdoors is so important for Ford is because the outdoors is a judgment-free space. As she told her old college, “Nature is a place of equality in society … This is about opening the door for more people of color to enjoy the outdoors.”
“Nature treats us all the same.”