Shared from the 3/26/2021 Star Tribune eEdition


A Duluth woman accepts the attention on her epic winter thru-hike, even if her intent was modest.


ALEX KORMANN •; provided photo below While she hiked for the love of it, Emily Ford said she is glad her hike is inspiring other people. She is shown on the grounds of Glensheen Mansion, where she is the head gardener.


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.

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 was the first person to thruhike 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 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 ,” Summers said.

In a recent conversation, Ford talked about the intense public reaction to her hike; missing her thruhike 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:

You’ve told other interviewers that you hope your thru-hike inspires others, but that your intent was modest. What about your motivations? 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. 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.

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? When you are out there alone, you are your own hero and your own enemy. You really have to deal with yourself. If you don’t, a lot of people just quit, because it’s hard. 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.

Did you anticipate your skin color or other parts of your life becoming topics?

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. 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.

What about social media? You are alone and 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.

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.

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. 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.

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. The first couple of days were rough. I missed her very much. 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

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