In The Limelight
Ice Age Trailblazer
The First Black Woman to Hike the 1,200 Mile Ice Age Trail in Winter
Story and Interview by Teresa Nguyen
"I’m hoping that this is just a door for other people to do it, or to attempt to do something that doesn’t seem like it “fits them”. For a lot of people of color, they feel that the outdoors doesn’t really fit them. But it can. It does. Nature is a level playing field for everybody." ~ Emily Ford
Emily Ford with Diggins - Photo by Kim Hoholek
At 11:16 a.m. on Saturday, January 16th, I get a photo in a message on my phone from Janesville photographer and avid outdoor enthusiast, Kim Hoholek. The conversation goes like this:
Kim: Look who I found.
Kim: I am so super excited.
Tess: Gosh I would love to interview her!!
Then my phone rings. Kim begins to describe in detail all her estimations of trail distance and timing. It's something she’s quite experienced with, and she figures out, quite accurately, that Emily Ford should be arriving at Storrs Lake in Milton by 12:30 p.m. She encourages me to join her in greeting this record setting, inspiring woman.
I wonder to myself if Emily would be open to doing a brief interview. She had already been interviewed by a newspaper reporter in Duluth and had an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Would I be so lucky?
There's something special about this piece. A female trailblazer, a female, professional photographer and an independent, female journalist - all coming together for a pretty cool story. The timing is perfect and it comes in an age when we really need some positive, inspiring news!
Emily, who makes her home in Duluth, Minnesota, is the first woman to thru-hike the 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail in winter and the first Black woman to do so!
After a year of several hideous incidents and highly publicized murders of Black Americans like Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, the ugliness of American racism was exposed like a raw, festering wound in our culture. Protests erupted across the United States, and around the world, raising awareness on the injustice, urging people everywhere to wake up and help end systemic racism.
Coree Woltering, a runner from Ottowa, Illinois, decided to do something, to create a positive story. He became the first Black man to make the fastest known time to complete Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail. Corree ran it in 21 days, 13 hours, and 35 minutes! That was in June of 2020.
Read about Corree here:
Back in 2017, an Oregon man, Mike Summers, made the first winter thru-hike of Ice Age Trail.
2021 will soon see another amazing record. Emily set out on December 28th, in the Sturgeon Bay area of eastern Wisconsin, for what she expects to be a 70-day solo trek along the entire, circuitous route of Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail. She hopes to finish her incredible goal sometime in early March near St. Croix Falls, on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border.
Doug Richter, Emily Ford with Diggins and Kim Hoholek
Pretty snowflakes gently fall, our breath creates a foggy cloud in the freezing temperatures and we all try not to slip on ice. Welcome to winter in Wisconsin! Amazingly Emily is out there walking the miles, bundled in serious, warm, outdoor hiking gear, lugging a 60 lb. backpack with her companion, Diggins, an Alaskan Huskie, who also loves the outdoors. Diggins, so ready to trek with boundless energy, is aptly named after a famous Minnesota nordic skier.
They’re making progress on the route, trekking through woods, over hills and steep slopes and miles of flat farmland, now arriving at the southernmost tip of the Wisconsin Ice Age Trail - the Janesville segment! How special that during MLK Day, Emily will be here in Rock County, on her way to making new history, proving to others like her that, with determination and courage, they can realize their dreams, too.
When any rare opportunity for an amazing interview comes along, there’s very little hesitation on my part. But, this year is a bit different.
Anytime we leave the house during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have to weigh the risks. I begin to think...it’s outdoors, I’ll wear a mask and keep my distance, making sure I have my hand sanitizer. Yes, this can happen! I hop in my car and head north, feeling extra eager when I hit the outskirts of Janesville on 26 and drive past the snow-covered cornfields.
As I slow down on East Storrs Lake Road, I call Kim. While she’s talking to me she spots Emily and a group of hiking enthusiasts following her on the trail, excitedly soaking up the moments in the presence of a woman determined to follow her dream, to achieve what no woman had done before her - all in the icy challenges of winter.
Emily Ford with Diggins - Photo by Kim Hoholek
Emily and Diggins quickly approach the trail head. With long strides, her pace is swift and, as we see her get close, we begin to cheer. Emily slows to a stop, smiles her gentle smile, says hello and accepts a few gifts of food. She has been gifted a variety of special things along the path from numerous donors, other hiking enthusiasts and followers of Emily.
As she takes a short break to sit at a picnic table, munching on crackers, and sharing some with Diggins, we begin the exciting interview. It’s a such spontaneous thing to do on a Saturday afternoon, when I’m normally off work, but so worth every second.
As I listen to Emily, a down-to-earth, kind, smart and courageous young woman, I feel incredibly grateful to have this opportunity to record history in the making!
Interview with Emily Ford
The Early Years
I grew up in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, but moved to Duluth after college. My dad was a biker. He liked to cycle a road bike when I was younger and would take us around as little kids. My mom spent a lot of time out in the garden, out in the yard. So, I was exposed to the outdoors as a child.
My grandparents owned a farm, so we were outside there quite a bit and we spent a lot of time on the farm. I helped them with chores and I loved spending as much time as I could at my grandparents’ place. It was such a precious time in my life.
Wisconsin's 1,200 Mile Ice Age Trail
Inspired to Hike
When I was 12, I asked my mom if I could walk the railroad tracks as far as I could. And she let me! She let me wake up at 3 in the morning and I walked as far as I could, which ended up being 12 miles! My mom has always been super supportive. She taught me independence. She was a single mother and already had her hands full with me and my sister.
I attended Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, where I earned a degree in Geology. During those college years, I would go hike with friends. But I didn’t get into backpacking until I moved to Duluth and hiked through the Superior Hiking Trail.
I’ve always loved being alone in the outdoors, but now that I’m an adult I can afford the stuff to do it! I slowly acquired better and better gear over time. On my first trip, I brought glass jars to hold my salt, pepper and oil for my kitchen set, which is silly.
Ice Age Trail at Storrs Lake in Milton, WI
Photo by Kim Hoholek
The Ice Age Trail Decision
I decided to do this, believed I could do it…and I’m doing it! Winter is the time I’m not working in the gardens and, during this period when I’m laid off, a long hike is perfect.
I work as a gardener at the Glensheen historical house museum. I take care of all of the gardens, vegetable and flower gardens, formal and informal and all of their landscaping, as well. Soil composition is where my degree comes in.
During my working months, I can’t leave the gardens for two months. I have awesome students who work for me from the University of Minnesota - Duluth. But to work without your boss for two months...it’s a big job.
Read about Glensheen Mansion Gardens at:
Watch a short video about Glensheen: Glensheen Mansion
Diggins the Dog
Diggins is a 3-year-old Alaskan Huskie. She loves me. She doesn’t love everybody. She’s very protective of me now. She does great and hikes with me all day, loves to eat food and to snuggle. She’s from a dog sledding kennel and I will be returning her when I’m done.
On Emily’s Instagram she wrote about the reason she chose Diggins to go on this great trip:
1. Having a dog along is good for mental health.
2. She's really good at pulling and since I have a limited window to complete this trip, she will make sure that we stay on pace.
3. She keeps the tent oddly warm (but this is just a bonus, I would not recommend inviting nearly any sled dog into your tent. They are for working, not snuggling).
There have been questions as to whether or not I will adopt her but, no, I have my own dog at home and my normal life can’t provide what she needs. I recognize that. I work from sunrise to sunset and can’t provide her with the life she needs. Maybe when she’s older, 8, 9 or 10 and she’s done being a sled dog, I’ll adopt here then. But she was born to work, to pull and do all of those things.
Interesting Geology and Physical Geography
I think the Kettle-Moraine State Forest area is so amazing. When I studied geology, I studied more of the ancient plant forms. In the Kettle-Moraine, you won’t find coniferous trees on those slopes. So, if you’re hiking along and you see those conifers in the distance, you know you’re going to be hiking on the flats. But if you see the oaks and the ash trees, you know you’re going to be hiking in the hills. So, you can kind of tell where you’re going to be based off of that.
When you finally understand the size of a glacier and understand how those gigantic divots were made, that’s a big deal. It makes you feel really small. That glacier was huge! The glaciers were gigantic! They were bigger than you can imagine.
You realize you’re walking through millions of years of history. You can find that anywhere. Down here you have a lot of limestone. Up around Duluth, we have more volcanic material. When you go past some of these limestone quarries, you’re reading a timeline.
Emily Ford with Diggins
Photo by Kim Hoholek
The flat land trail through Kettle-Moraine State Forest
Photo by Teresa Nguyen
The trip has been great and we have had some beautiful weather. Here we are in Milton, Wisconsin and it’s 30 degrees - good and warm!
First Black Woman – Making History on the Ice Age Trail
It hasn’t hit me yet. I didn’t think so many people would be interested in it, because this is just my normal life. It feels right. It just feels normal to me.
I’m hoping that this is just a door for other people to do it, or to attempt to do something that doesn’t seem like it “fits them”. For a lot of people of color, they feel that the outdoors doesn’t really fit them. But it can. It does. Nature is a level playing field for everybody. Nature makes everybody cold. Nature makes everybody hot. The mosquitoes bite everybody. It’s out here for everybody.
Adults are usually pretty cool about things.
But when my sister and I were kids, if we saw someone who looked like us doing something that we didn’t think we could do, it would have changed things. Our parents were great about trying to get us out there, encouraging us, but my mom is not a person of color. It’s a little different when you see someone who looks like you.
I’m hoping that when little kids learn about this, it helps them believe in doing what they think is impossible. That little Black child, who might be afraid of the dark, I want him/her to know it’s not something to be afraid of.
Am I courageous? I don’t know. What are you afraid of? When I saw two glowing eyes looking at me one night, I realized it was just a fox. He was just wondering if I had something for him to eat. You have to be smart with your wits, trust your gut. You know when people don’t feel good to you, so get out of that situation. And, you want to let people know where you are when you are out there alone at night.
One of my greatest role models is my grandfather. My grandfather is a white farmer in Minnesota, and he encouraged me as a child. They still do. My grandparents have been following this trip, printed out a big map and they’re following me, they want me to call often and I do. I call my mom and my sister to let them know that I’m doing alright.
I’m not worried about the pandemic since I’m outdoors and people are being respectful. My mom isn’t too worried about me.
I’ve been meeting new people for 20 days now, almost every day, so I apologize if I don’t list all of their names here, but I am thankful for the trail angels I’ve met!
Emily Ford has a following, sometimes literally! Milton area hikers join Emily on the Storrs Lake trail.
There has been a lot of trail magic, people interested in helping out, people who bring me things, those offering me a square of their yard when I just need somewhere to camp, (Emily prefers to keep it outdoors) feeding me a hot meal. Hot meals are a big deal. A lady named Judy ran and got me a Culver’s burger yesterday.
Some of Emily's high calorie snacks
Photo by Emily Ford
I will quote Mike Summers who said, “Thank you to all the trail angels. You’ve definitely made that experience way better than it could have been.” Mike Summers was the first person to complete a winter hike of the entire Ice Age Trail in 2017. I agree with that. You can do the hike alone, but the extra things…they’re nice.
I love surprise foods. I love warm foods. I’m stopping in Milton for something warm to eat. People don’t realize I don’t get a lot of fresh foods. I get a lot of trail mix and nuts, but I miss salads, apples. Even Diggins will eat a whole apple.
A New Friend - Interview with Tarra Gundrum
Outdoor Adventurer/Bycicle Tourer
Author of Finding My Possible
I primarily cycle, I’m a two-side adventurist. From April through September, I enjoy biking. Then I hike in winter.
Scrolling through Twitter, I saw a story from a Duluth paper on Emily. I scrolled back really quick and thought, “Whoa, that’s a Black woman!” I was so in awe. She’s really doing it; she’s literally paving the way. She is showing so many people in the community, of all races and cultures and creeds, that this is something everyone can enjoy. I was very inspired.
I live in West Bend and went on my normal hike and then decided to go a little farther that day, because I’m increasing my mileage. Next thing you know, I saw her, saw Diggins with the little red bag and got so excited! I didn’t realize she would be down that far south already!
So, I reached out to her. I’m very aware of safety out on the trail and being very hesitant about who you allow to be with you and spend time with you. But since our first interaction, there was an immediate mutual respect. Emily was cool enough to let me come along today and let me be a part of her journey, to enjoy the beauty of nature and to be with her for a while as she fulfills her dream.
Today, I told her that she was like my spirit sister. Some of the things you value in life mean more than material things, like the appreciation of nature. Wisconsin is beautiful, the people…you can’t beat it. It’s just great!
To learn more about Tarra Gundrum, visit her website:
To order Tarra Gundrum's book, Finding My Possible, click here:
Tarra Gundrum with Emily Ford and Diggins
Photo by Kim Hoholek
Emily Looks Ahead
I look forward to sleeping! Diggins and I sleep pretty dang great at nighttime, honestly. We go to bed around 6 and wake up at 5:30 the next day.
Someday, I’ll do another adventure. But I have a partner at home and I need to be a good partner and to be there for my dog.
My partner, Flo, loves hiking and outdoor activities, too, but she’s a graphics designer and can’t take this kind of time off work. She loves skiing, hiking, fishing, snowshoeing and is likely doing more than I’m doing right now!
Pacific Crest Trail
Continental Divide Trail
As far as hiking more trails, I would love to get the Triple Crown one day, but it’s a matter of having the time to do it. The Triple Crown is hiking the three major U.S. long-distance trails: The Pacific Crest Trail at 2,654 miles, the Appalachian Trail at 2,193 miles and the Continental Divide Trail at 3,100 miles.
Emily Ford with Diggins - Photo by Kim Hoholek
On Emily’s Instagram, she wrote this inspirational piece:
I want people to know that literally ANYONE can play outdoors. No matter which boxes you do or do not check. Through my time backpacking, I've never really met another brown person backpacking, skiing or mountain biking. I know that brown people are outdoors (I see it on Instagram now!)
But I want to add to the story.
Read our story on the Ice Age : Janesville Area Stories IAT
Follow Emily on Instagram: @emilyontrail
To read other articles about Emily's history-making adventure:
Duluth News Tribune
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel