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Thru-Hiker Emily Ford on Finishing the Ice Age Trail in Winter and Being a “First”

For this 28-year-old Minnesotan, life on a long path is a series of snowy 20-mile days with a borrowed husky. What will life after it look like?

While most of the country avoided historically frigid temperatures by staying inside, Emily Ford and Diggins the sled dog were continuing to trudge their way down Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail

The 28-year-old Duluth, Minnesota resident has been hiking westbound through Wisconsin since December 28. Now nearly finished, she’s poised to become the first woman and second person ever to complete a winter thru-hike of the trail. 

Before she hit the trail, Ford worked as the head gardener of a historic house museum in Duluth called Glensheen. She enjoys the inherently outdoors nature of gardening, and she believes it will make for a fairly easy transition back to off-trail life. The seasonal nature of the job allowed her the time to embark on the trip, provided she was willing to do it in the winter. 

As a queer Black woman, Ford grasps that her story is inspiring to many of her followers. Still, she says, she struggles with the idea that her Blackness may be leading some people to view her hike—a deeply personal experience for Ford—as a novelty.

“I like backpacking. I like the winter,” she says. “To me it seems so normal I don’t think I am understanding the impact. I’m just having fun out here.” 

Prior to the Ice Age Trail, Ford had hiked the shorter Superior Hiking Trail and Border Route Trail in warmer weather. She’s adapted easily to winter, though: The recent cold snap across most of America gives some insight into the conditions Ford considers fun. In the same weather that created record lows and forced rolling power blackouts, Emily trekked through snow as deep as a foot with Diggins, the three-year-old sled dog she borrowed for the trip. 

A typical day for the duo starts a little after 5 A.M., and usually ends about 20 miles farther down the trail. Winter hiking comes with a level of stillness that can feel unnerving to those used to the life and activity of warm-weather treks; instead of filling that void with music or audiobooks, Ford has been using that time to work on her own relationship with herself. With just her own footfalls to break the silence, walking “becomes almost meditative.” 

“I like to tackle really hard topics that I’ve struggled with and go through the different parts of forgiveness while I hike,” Ford says.  

She does so with Diggins leading the way, as is the husky’s instinct.  Their bond was nearly immediate when they first met at the kennel, and has only grown deeper during their time together. Curled up next to her at night in the tent, or turning her ears in the direction of Ford’s voice as she sings over the sound of their steps, Diggins, Ford says, has become her best friend.  

“Returning her is the only thing I’ve cried about so far on this trip, Ford says. “I’m going to miss her so much. But I know that my life outside this trip is not made for her.” Diggins will return to the kennel she was borrowed from, and Emily will adjust to life as a “first”.

When asked what she hopes her story offers to others, Ford said she wants to speak to people who “check a weird box.”  

“If you’ve ever dreamt of doing something and there is no one who looks like you doing it, do it and make those steps with us,” she says. “You don’t have to be a certain way to do the thing.”