Emily Ford will finish 1,136-mile trek across Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail today

John Myers, Duluth News Tribune, Minn.
·12 min read

Mar. 6—BARRONETT, Wis. — As we approached from behind, it looked like a big backpack with legs, walking behind a sled dog down a freshly plowed country road just outside this tiny town.

But when we drove up alongside her we could see it was indeed Emily Ford, her pack sticking up taller than her head, with a trekking pole in each hand and her best four-legged bud, Diggins, out in front.

Nearly a foot of snow had fallen here the night before. It was 14 degrees above zero with a stiff north wind.

"How are you doing?" she asked us, as if we might be hurting from a 90-minute drive.

It was clear by her big smile that Ford was doing just fine, on her last cold day of the final week of her epic 10-week, 1,136-mile trek along the entire length of Wisconsin's Ice Age trail.

Ford, of Duluth, was on track to walk into Interstate State Park about noon Saturday, hike along the St. Croix River on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border for a bit, and finish her 69-day journey at the western terminus of the trail. A documentary film crew and some of her friends will be there to greet her.

She becomes only the second person on record to complete a winter thru-hike of the Ice Age Trail.

Since the News Tribune first ran a story detailing her trek back on Jan. 2, Ford, 28, has become a cause celebre of sorts on multiple fronts — promoting outdoor recreation in general and outdoor participation by people of color in particular. She dedicated her hike to accomplish that mission. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did a story on her, as did Backpacker Magazine. An independent video production company, Credo Nonfiction, heard about the trip and followed her for several days, compiling a documentary on Ford's hike. The Instagram account she created to offer updates on the trip — emilyontrail — has more than 8,400 followers.

Ford left the Sturgeon Bay area of eastern Wisconsin on Dec. 28, the eastern terminus of the trail, and has been outdoors most of every day since then. She walked through virtually every kind of weather a Wisconsin winter could throw at her — from sun and rain to heavy snow and from 45 degrees above zero to 37 degrees below zero, a whopping 82-degree temperature spread.

On one day in southern Wisconsin back in January, she stripped down to her base layer as she hiked, too warm to wear her heavy trekking pants. On days in mid-February when it never got above zero, she said she never had enough clothes to put on, that she was always cold.

But she and Diggins kept walking, kept chewing up miles, kept moving forward.

She hiked hundreds of miles on back roads and urban footways but also walked hundreds of miles breaking trail in wooded and wild areas. Some parts were flat as a pancake, others were so hilly that her legs ached. In some parts of north-central Wisconsin, recent snowstorms had dumped more than 2 feet on the ground.

She has lost maybe 25 pounds. She's so thin now that her backpack waist cinch-strap is too loose to provide much support.

"It was perfect when I started. But I can't get it any smaller," she said.

Ford is on her second pair of boots, broke a trekking pole in a tumble and suffered what she called "frost nibble" on her toes and fingers.

"I'm not sure it was full-blown frostbite," she said. "But they hurt sometimes ... the tips of my fingers are kind of numb."

The trip, stretching over four different months, took only four days longer than Ford had planned, mostly because she decided to take a few extra "zero days" of rest along the way. Sometimes she needed a day off to let an injury recover, sometimes to accept the kindness of strangers to sleep indoors, and linger indoors, when it was 30 below zero outdoors.

We sat down with Ford in a warm vehicle on a cold day earlier this week and talked about her journey:

News Tribune: If you could do anything differently, what would it be?

Ford: "I would have figured in more rest dates for sure. And if I would have known so much trail magic was going to happen (people offering her unsolicited food, supplies and shelter) I would have packed less food. Those are the two main things."

News Tribune: How did you make that trail magic happen, or how did it happen?

Ford: "It's magic, man. Magic just happens. People find you and they do great things for you ... lots of it is on the trail. They'd leave me stuff at the trailheads ... like water and socks ... like a new pair of socks. A lot of people leave candy, Snickers. When it was really cold a lot of people left (disposable) hand warmers."

News Tribune: How did they know where and when you would be there?

Ford: "I posted once a week (on Instagram and Facebook and the Ice Age Trail website) so people knew approximately where I was. People would find me and take pictures of me and post them (on social media) and kind of give away my location."

News Tribune: What advice would you offer for someone who wants to make the same winter hike along the Ice Age Trail?

Ford: "I probably would tell them to do the app (Guthook mapping app for the trail). And I'd probably tell them to have a good support team. ... Even if you are doing it unsupported, if you can have at least one person back home to be able to communicate with in case you need stuff. That has been super-key for me on this trip. My partner has been able to send me stuff like my new boots and my trekking poles."

News Tribune: Did you have a favorite part of the trail, a place or time something happened?

Ford: "Heading west (toward Minnesota and home) was a big deal. ... But I think moments like just happened back at Brickyard, that pottery shop I stopped at along the trail this morning. This trail goes through a lot of rural communities where there's not many places to stop at. So when you are walking down a road and it's cold and blustery and whatever and you are like wishing for something to appear out of nothing. And there it is: A warm building and they let you in and give you water. ... And I bought quite a bit of pottery ... just because I'm backpacking doesn't mean I can't support small businesses."

News Tribune: Was there a least favorite part of the trip?

Ford: "Constantly being cold all the time was just not fun. Even though I'm sitting in a vehicle now, I'm warming up, but my boots are melting so they will just freeze again. You're just always cold, and sometimes you're colder than other times. Even if it's 40 degrees above zero, if you sit outside long enough, you're going to get cold. ... But I signed up for this so I know I shouldn't complain. I decided to take a trip through Wisconsin in the middle of winter. It's not like I'm caught unawares. ... But I personally had never seen the thermometer at negative 37 before in my life. I've lived in Minnesota my whole life and I'd never seen the actual air temperature that cold before."

News Tribune: So it's not like once it's below zero it's all the same?

Ford: "I will be the first to tell you that's a bunch of malarkey! After 37 below, zero felt great. One night it was negative 10 and it felt fine after 37 below. I didn't feel warm, obviously, but I was moving about camp without gloves on in negative 10. ... So there's a huge difference in cold."

News Tribune: As to the public reaction to your hike, are you kind of surprised by the notoriety you've received?

Ford: "We talked about that before I left, that of course I wanted to show that anybody can hike. Did I think that thousands of people were going to start following my Instagram account? No. Is it a good or bad thing? I think it remains to be seen. Because this is my trail life, right? But you know I have my other life, and to see these meshed together is going to be interesting to say the least ... my other life working (as the gardener) at Glensheen, having a dog, having a partner, having a house and a mortgage."

News Tribune: Do you feel like you've accomplished what you set out to do, to inspire people of color, coming off such a bad year in 2020, to get outdoors?

Ford: "I think so. I think one of the reasons people jumped on this (following her hike) is because I don't know if 2020 was the most inspiring year in the United States ... maybe a bad year. So I feel like I helped. But it remains to be seen. I'm hoping I planted seeds at least (for people of color to get outdoors) and we may not see the fruit of that for a while. Because how easy is it to follow someone's journey on Instagram? You click a button and you're following. But now the other people have to start doing the work. If you still want to keep this going, you've got do the thing yourself. Get out there ... I don't want this to be a New Year's resolution kind of thing. I hope this sticks with people for a while to make a change in their lives, if that's what they want."

News Tribune: Other than frostbite and being cold, how has your health been?

Ford: "It's been remarkable. I feel great ... I mean my muscles are sore. I'm going to line up at the massage therapist the day I get home and hope that he's open."

News Tribune: So your supply system of having a box dropped off for you each week worked well?

Ford: "It was awesome. I set myself up for luxury with that ... I'm telling you, clean underwear, dude. Socks and underwear, a fresh pair, it's just like Christmas every time."

News Tribune: What was the hardest part of the hike physically?

Ford: "There's one specific place that sticks in my mind called the Kettle Bowl that had everything combined at once to make it difficult ... in Langlade County, for two days. First, it was cold. We slept in negative 15. I woke up the next day and Diggins was covered in frost (inside their tent.) Our tent was covered in frost ... and the snow was deep, the powdery kind of snow. We were going through snow that was deeper than Diggins ... she was plowing through it. And it was really hilly. Those three things separately would have been fine. But all at one time, it was not great."

News Tribune: Was there any one character that stuck out on the trip. Someone you met?

Ford: "I'm not going there. Those secrets are going to stay on the trail. You can just say that Wisconsin is full of every type of person, and I mean that in the most Midwestern sense possible."

News Tribune: Did you have any trouble? Did you ever feel threatened or in danger?

Ford: "No ... nothing serious. Not until the wolf hunt came around. That was probably the only time I thought it might get dicey."

News Tribune: As you were walking all that way and nearing the end of this big trip, did you ever ask yourself, 'What am I going to do next for an adventure?'

Ford: "I don't know what's next. I mean, if the borders open (after COVID-19) I'd like to travel, maybe internationally ... Europe would be fun. But, just for now, the adventure can be at home ... be with my family."

The App that saved her many times

Ford said the Ice Age trail can be hard to follow, and that some maps aren't detailed enough, or are even wrong, in showing the actual trail route. She found an map app through Guthook Guides ($24.99 at atlasguides.com/trail-guides) that has been dead-on accurate, she said.

"It's been a lifesaver on this trip because you can see where you're at even on airplane mode," she said.

Indeed, in just a short walk with Ford through a thick maple forest in southern Washburn County earlier this week, we passed a fork where the actual trail departed from a snow-covered logging road. Three of us missed the small yellow blazes painted on trees marking the trail.

"That's the Ice Age Trail," Ford said. "Just when you are feeling good about where you are, you'd better check the map because you're probably off the trail."

About the Ice Age Trail

The trail was designated a National Scenic Trail in 1980. It crosses over private land, city and state parks and county and national forest land. The trail goes across 31 of Wisconsin's 72 counties on a variety of terrain and surfaces — everything from rough footpaths to county roads — and through cities, villages and towns. About 1 million people use the trail for hiking, backpacking, snowshoeing and, on some segments, cross-country skiing each year. The trail is managed by a partnership among the National Park Service, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the nonprofit, volunteer Ice Age Trail Alliance. The trail is not yet complete: More than 600 miles are on designated footpaths while more than 500 miles are as-yet unmarked connecting routes between official trail segments, often on roads. For more information go to iceagetrail.org or facebook.com/iceagetrail.