Duluth woman on her thru-hike of the Ice Age Trail in winter: 'Me being me'

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Bob Timmons, Star Tribune
·9 min read
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Emily Ford says yes to things.

And that, in a nut, explains how the Duluth woman pulled on her backpack and left Sturgeon Bay, Wis., on Dec. 28, marching up, down and across the state's outdoors over 69 days in the heart of winter.

On the final day, March 6, she arrived near St. Croix Falls, Wis., at the Minnesota border. She became the second person and first woman to thru-hike in winter the 1,200 miles of the Ice Age Trail, a footpath covering glacier-made territory of woodland and prairie that includes miles of road-walking, too.

Her race (she's Black) and sex have been a prominent story line in coverage of her achievement. Neither was on Ford's mind when she decided to backpack. Her motivations were simple: She has more free time in the winter (she's head gardener at Glensheen Mansion in Duluth). She has long-distanced hiked before, having tackled the Superior Hiking Trail. And, oh, a friend randomly suggested the Ice Age.

"A lot of things in my life appear," she said, "and I just say, yes."

Ford, 28, said her thru-hike has roots in her upbringing. She recalled as a child the freedom to explore during regular visits to her grandparents' farm in little Jacobson, Minn., south of Grand Rapids. She and a friend Anna had the run of the place. Ford also said canoe camping with Anna's parents in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness influenced her immeasurably. With the right encouragement, her desire for nature and exploration only built.

Ford recalled a transcendent moment growing up in Brooklyn Park when her mom, Paula, validated her sense of adventure. She woke up at 3 a.m., packed water and peanut butter and saltines, and walked the railroad tracks near her house, hiking toward Otsego.

"I think they do understand that this is me being me," she said of her family's reaction to her long winter's walk.

Even though he hasn't met Ford, Mike Summers appreciates her, too. He is the first person to thru-hike the Ice Age Trail in winter, finishing in 59 days in January 2017.

From his home in Portland, Ore., Summers, 31, acknowledged the similarities inherent in their long journeys. The harsh days, for one. "Even the idea of doing it is forbidding. Can this even be done?" he said. Summers also acknowledged that every experience is unique. He welcomed and thrived on the attention, whereas glory and a wild following on social media didn't figure in Ford's hiking plans.

"I am really impressed that here is this person who just wanted to go do this — didn't want to tell anybody … .

"And it turned out that it was this inspiring jumping-off point for so many people, and she was totally on board with making that come alive. I am just impressed with this person. It seems like she has her head straight on her shoulders," Summers said.

In a recent conversation, Ford talked about the intense public reaction to her hike; missing her thru-hike companion, Diggins, a sled dog loaned to her from Beatty Family Farm in Lakeville; and adjusting again in to everyday life. Excerpts have been edited for clarity and space:

Q: You've told other interviewers that you hope your thru-hike inspires others, but that your intent was modest. Tell me about your motivation, and have you reflected on that over time?

You are exactly right. I like backpacking. I like the rhythm of the life of backpacking. Even if there was no publicity about this, I would still be a backpacker. I would still be looking for another trail to do. I still would love my trip. But I am so excited that something I love can be helpful in many circles. I think sometimes silent sports can be selfish. I am really pleased that this gets to be a community thing. That is really exciting for me. Even though it was just a suggestion from a buddy at a bar and I ran with it.

Q: Did your long time in the wild, much of it alone, deepen any convictions for you?

Everything is a choice. You have to choose if you are going to decide to face your demons alone while you are in the wilderness. Are you going to allow those emotions to arise? Are you going to face them? What are you going to do with feelings that you have when you are alone out in the wilderness? Some days I really tried to let those issues that I have come up with and deal with them. Face some weird qualms head-on. When you are out there alone, you are your own hero and your own enemy. And there is nobody else to fight with and point the finger at. You really have to deal with yourself. If you don't, a lot of people just quit, because it's hard.

It gave me perspective, and it brought me back to a center of myself that I enjoy: deep thinking. I love thinking for long hours and sitting in the quiet and soaking that in and being OK with that. I think I've missed that. I hadn't gone on a trip for a while, a couple of years. It was really good.

The mantra that has come out of my trip is that I want people to experience the outdoors, and the outdoors is for everybody. I will stand by that for the rest of my life, happily. What I am trying to say is, my hope for everybody is that you get that to a point in your life where you feel so tiny under the stars, you feel your place in nature with every other animal, you feel your spot in the food chain. … That feeling is one where I want people to be able to go and feel so in awe. If everybody could feel that way and get that sense, our whole planet would be different.

Q: Did you anticipate your skin color or other parts of your life becoming topics? You seemed to have reconciled that people want to acknowledge race.

No, because I forget. I just like to backpack. My personality is definitely a silent supporter. The way I show love — it's through small actions. It is way more than me proclaiming something out loud. The tension I feel [about the Atlanta spa shootings], I remember the same tension of when George Floyd was murdered. There have to be actions somewhere. I've never been outwardly "Black is Beautiful" even though I believe it; I just like to do the [outdoors] things.

For social justice, we need every type. The loud and proud folks, the doers, the silent supporters — we need everybody to keep it going. If the result of me doing something that I love is that other people feel more comfortable and it pushes social justice and racial justice forward, that's fantastic. I love that. I wasn't even thinking about my skin color before I left.

I was talking to James Mills. He does The Joy Trip Project. He's also a person of color. I said, one day I hope a Black woman going backpacking won't be such a big deal. That is my hope. Seeing race is not a bad thing, but I am hoping that it becomes more and more normal.

Q: What about social media? You are alone but not alone.

I am still figuring it out. This time last year I didn't have Instagram. I am still learning the rules. Now there is this audience of thousands of people that could see what I am doing. That is kind of the weird thing, I guess. I am still learning what that looks like. The biggest thing is sponsors and brand sponsors. Is that something I want to shift into? Sometimes when I say yes to that it makes me think I am getting out of "I am a normal person; you can do this, too" type of thing.

I had tons of things I did not post. There were a lot of sweet moments that were just for me and Diggins. The conclusion I have come to is (social media) is a tool and a versatile tool. Even a Swiss Army knife has its limits. Airplane mode is the best thing to have ever happened to a cellphone. I love taking photos and having those memories, but having your phone on airplane mode is pretty close to disappearing. Yeah, I love that. I disappeared, but people were very much searching for me while I was out there. Sometimes it was so cold, getting my phone out of my pocket was nonnegotiable.

Some people were upset that I wasn't using Strava (an app that tracks activity). I don't want you to know where I am. That is not the point of this. I promised you I would do one social media dump a week. It's mostly not for the people out there; it's mostly for my family. That is all you are going to get because that is not what backpacking is about for me.

These long backpacking trips are for me. If there is a spark for other people after that, that's fantastic. Mother Nature doesn't need an Instagram. She just is.

Q: How have you adjusted since getting off-trail?

Better now. I have a good idea of how Mike Summers felt. It's an indescribable hike. I would see people, but this is literally a trail that nobody else was thru-hiking. On the AT [Appalachian Trail] and PCT [Pacific Crest Trail], you will most likely see people. So coming back was tough. The world out here is a lot more complicated. My partner, Flo, was very gracious and patient. I am very thankful. It's been good being back at work. I've been on small skis and small hikes, but my body is like, I just want you to rest for a second, and then we can get back out there and do aggressive things.

Q: How is Diggins?

Oh, man. I have a picture of her at my desk. Going into it I knew I was borrowing her, and you have to return her. I recognized that her life is not to be a house dog right now. She is a working animal. She loves to pull, she loves to run, she needs that exercise. We've stayed in touch, and I will see her again. The first couple of days were rough. I missed her very much.

We definitely learned each other's communication styles. It is hard to describe how, but we got into our routine, our rhythm. I think she understood that we were the pack — it was just her and I. And that is good because no matter how many people we met, we were the only consistencies in each other's lives for almost 70 days.

Bob Timmons • 612-673-7899