It’s not so much the snow or cold or icy footpaths that concern Emily Ford, or even possible thuggery along the route. It’s more the isolation, the being alone for the next 10 weeks.
And that’s why she borrowed Diggins.
Ford left the Sturgeon Bay area of eastern Wisconsin on Dec. 28 walking generally westward for what she expects to be a 70-day solo hike of roughly 1,200 miles along the entire, circuitous route of Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail.
She expects to finish her hike sometime in early March near St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin on the Minnesota border.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever spent that much time basically being alone, but that’s what I’m mostly thinking about,’’ Ford said on a December day when she was preparing for the epic trek. “I haven’t had any military training or motivational training on how to deal with that much being alone. And there are some long stretches, 30 miles along a flat road in one spot, where it might be hard to keep motivated… That’s why I’m bringing Diggins.”
Diggins is an Alaskan husky sled dog that Ford borrowed from a friend’s kennel. She’s a lead dog, named after the famous Minnesota nordic skier, that will provide companionship, motivation and maybe even some physical pull for Ford along the route.
Diggins will be tied to Ford on a long lead attached to a skijoring harness that Ford wears. It’s worked well in practice runs, but Ford has to work sometimes to keep up with the high-energy dog.
“Diggins is used to being out front of a fast sled dog team, so she’s like 'what are you doing back there’ when she looks at me,’’ Ford said with a laugh.
Ford, 28, has fastidiously pre-planned her itinerary on spreadsheets, blocking off exactly where she will be and how far she will go each day. That’s in part to keep her moving the “20-ish” miles per day she needs to walk to finish the route on schedule, but also to make sure she has a place to camp every night. The Ice Age Trail is just over half-completed on official foot-path trail. Much of the rest is on back roads and even city streets and sidewalks. She has campsites picked out on public forest land where possible, but she also has pre-arranged spots with private property owners along the route who she’s connected with on social media.
“One of them is a cattle ranch. Another is a sheep ranch,’’ she said. “Finding suitable campsites has been a problem along some parts of the trail. I don’t want to have to hike 40-mile days.”
While in different times she might have taken advantage of offers to spend nights inside people’s homes along the route, Ford said he’s going to stick to camping during the uncertain times of COVID-19. She’s also planning to avoid restaurants, which means most all of her 70 days will be outdoors.
“I just don’t want to risk it during COVID, so I’m going to be staying outside by myself as much as possible,’’ she said.
The Ice Age Trail — which roughly follows the southernmost advance of the last glaciers to invade Wisconsin some 12,000 years ago — runs in a wavy V-shape from Door County in northeastern Wisconsin, southwest toward Madison to nearly the Illinois border, then back north and eventually west to the Minnesota border, ending about halfway between the Twin Ports and Twin Cities.
Through-hikes on the trail are rare because it is so long. And to date there’s been only one documented winter through-hike. Oregon hiker Mike Summers did the trail from December 2016 to March 2017, in one of Wisconsin’s warmer and less snowy winters of late.
“Despite the many hardships of winter hiking, it’s the generous people of Wisconsin who made this hike possible. I stayed with trail angels for 19 of the 58 nights, each person unknown prior to the journey. The other 33 nights I slept outside, near the trail. Half of those nights were spent cowboy camping under the bare trees and open sky,’’ Summers wrote in a story for the Ice Age Trail Alliance. “On several occasions I strolled into a bar for a burger and a beer only to get talking with the locals and become the recipient of unbelievable trail magic. Twice pet dogs introduced me to owners who invited me into their home. Without these acts of kindness, the hike would have been much tougher.”
It’s possible Ford’s trip will be only the second documented winter through-hike of the Ice Age Trail.
But why winter?
“I can’t tell you the last time I hiked or camped in the summer. I totally hate bugs,’’ she said.
Moreover, when she’s not hiking, Ford is the head gardener at Duluth’s Glensheen mansion, a job that keeps her very busy from April through autumn.
“So most of my free time is in the winter,’’ she noted.
Energy bars and salami
While the Ice Age Trail will be by far the longest hike she’s ever done, it’s not Ford’s first rodeo. She has through-hiked the combined Border Route and Superior Hiking Trail, more than 300 miles, and across the maze called the Kekekabic Trail that cuts across the heart of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
While the Ice Age Trail is known for its hilly terrain and scenic vistas of rural landscapes, it's generally not as wild or remote of terrain as those Minnesota trails, with more suburban, urban and agricultural development along the way. Ford will pass by plenty of stores along the way. But she also will be self-sufficient for long chunks of the trail, and she has set up rendezvous points with nine different friends, who will each bring Ford a pre-packed grocery bag of provisions, clean clothes and dog food for Diggins.
“Diggins will have her own pack, too, carrying her own weight,’’ Ford noted of the dog. Diggins will carry a week's worth of dog food (two cups daily) as well as a coat for really cold days.
Unlike many backpackers who are often obsessed with the weight they are carrying, Ford doesn’t know what her backpack weighs when fully loaded.
“I never weigh my pack. I don't want to know,’’ she said.
Ford has been preparing her own high-energy bars and meals, making sure she has enough calories to keep energized along the way. (Her energy bar recipe includes honey, oats, almond/peanut butter, dried apricots, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, almonds, dark chocolate chips, dried cherries and pretzels.)
Duluth’s Northern Waters Smokehaus helped sponsor the trip by providing her with 13 pounds of salami for the trip. Granite Gear also kicked in a backpack and stuff sacks. And Swedish outdoor clothing company Fjallraven kicked in a high-tech pair of winter hiking pants.
Ford’s sleeping bag is rated to 30 below zero or colder and she has a borrowed tent for shelter if needed.
“I’m hoping to cowboy camp as much as possible,’’ she said of her plans to sleep under the stars on nights when it’s not too snowy or windy.
Opening outdoor doors for others
Ford said she’s trained well, taking long day hikes with her loaded backpack in recent weeks. But she’s also been preparing mentally for the rigors of the trek. While it may have been a more gregarious, social hike if she waited until after the pandemic, Ford said he needed to go now for many reasons.
“2020 was a really rough year for everyone, but especially so for people of color,’’ she said. “I want this trip to be an inspiration. Anyone can do this. Everyone can do this.”
Ford doesn’t speak of herself as being a role model to other people of color, or women or others who want to delve into the outdoors but who have so far not taken the leap. But she also knows how hard it is for people to get outdoors who don't have a tradition of being outdoors.
“I just want this door (to the outdoors) to be open to everyone,’’ she said. “That’s why I’m going now.”
Editors note: Stay tuned to the News Tribune's Northland Outdoors section for regular updates on Ford's progress over the next 10 weeks.
About Emily Ford
Emily Ford grew up in the Twin Cities, graduated from Osseo High School and then Gustavus Adolphus College, where she earned a degree in geology and studied soil science. Ford moved to Duluth in 2015 after graduating from college. As a youngster she often visited her grandparents’ farm near Jacobson in Aitkin County, where her grandfather was a tree farmer and engineer who taught Ford woodworking, electrical work and plumbing, and where Emily learned to garden with her grandmother. That fascination with soil and gardening led in 2016 to her current career as head gardener at the Glensheen mansion in Duluth.
About the Ice Age Trail
The trail, built and maintained largely by volunteers of the Ice Age Trail Association, was the idea of Ray Zillmer of Milwaukee who, in the 1950s, had a vision for a park winding through the state along the glacier’s terminal moraine. It was designated a National Scenic Trail in 1980, 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 foot paths to county roads — and through cities, villages and towns. Annually, about 1 million people use the trail for hiking, backpacking, snowshoeing and, on some segments, cross-country skiing. For more information go to iceagetrail.org or facebook.com/iceagetrail/
Ice Age Trail Facts:
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 open for hiking, backpacking and snowshoeing. Many segments support cross-country skiing, too. It is closed to all motorized vehicles.
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.
Most of the blazed Ice Age Trail segments fit hikers’ ideas of a traditional, off-road hiking experience. Some segments, however, lead hikers right down the main streets of Wisconsin communities. That’s by design — the Ice Age Trail is “meant to connect people and communities.”
The trail’s eastern terminus is in Potawatomi State Park in Sturgeon Bay, Door County and western terminus is Interstate State Park in Polk County on the Minnesota border.
One of the goals of the Ice Age Trail Alliance is to permanently protect the route of the Ice Age Trail. Every year, land is purchased with privately donated funds and grants from government partners to get closer to achieving this goal. The State of Wisconsin also acquires land for the trail through its Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.