January–February 2022


Cooling her heels

Adventurer Emily Ford gets ready for another winter expedition.

Julie Forster

It’s mid-fall, and Emily Ford can’t wait until dark winter descends again. Last year Ford became the first woman and only the second person to thru-hike Wisconsin’s 1,200-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail in winter. Now Ford, of Duluth, is making plans for another big winter trip: She plans to ski, hike, and snowshoe across the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, in part to promote the necessity to conserve uninhabited and wild spaces.

During her east-to-west trek over the glacially sculpted landscape of the Ice Age Trail, Ford gained a social media following that led to regional, national, and international media stories. The documentary Breaking Trail, released at the Banff international film festival in November, detailed her trek, her bond with her canine companion Diggins, and the unexpected kindness of strangers she met on her journey.

We caught up with Ford to talk about her past and future winter treks and lessons she’s taken from the trail.

Q | You hiked and camped in subzero temperatures and sometimes had to trudge through snow and mud that was knee deep, not to mention it was more than 1,000 miles. Do you hear from people saying, I could never do that?
Oh, I hear it all the time. I’m like, I bet you could. At the end of the day it’s really just walking. 

Q | And sometimes at less than a mile an hour when you’re plowing through that snow?
You’re going to hit times where it just sucks. You’re knee deep in snow and it’s hard to walk and you’re cold. Those times will pass, I promise. If you really want to get into this, the mental part is going to be the first thing that gets you out of there. In the winter, especially. It gets dark very fast. The sun rarely comes out, and when it does that means it’s really cold outside because the clouds aren’t keeping in the insulation. Not to make it sound like a terrible time, but not much is really going for you. You have to make it go for yourself. There’s not really a good way to mentally train yourself for something like this. But your brain will want to give out before your body does.

Q | What do you like about winter backpacking?
To me there’s nothing like the stars in the winter. The stars are so bright in the wintertime. And it’s so quiet and you can see the tracks of literally every animal that has crossed the snow from the tiniest mouse to a bobcat. That is so cool to me. There is nobody else out there with you, and it’s something you don’t really get anymore. It’s difficult to get to those spaces because you can usually only get there by foot, but I think those challenging things in life are worth it. 

Q | How quiet was it out there? 
Have you ever been somewhere super quiet and you can hear your ears ringing? The snow really dampens everything. When you are out away from everything you realize how loud the snow is when you step on it, and you realize how quiet it is when you go to bed at night and there’s nothing else around because you are in the middle of a wilderness. 

Q | Do you have any big winter hikes planned this year? 
Yes, I will be hiking across the Boundary Waters with Diggins this winter, which is really exciting. I am super stoked. I just started looking at some stuff last night to get my maps ready. 

Q | Tell me a little bit more about the trip. 
The mileage is about 250 over 27 to 35 days. We are leaving the second week in February and following the Voyageur’s Highway west to east from Voyageurs National Park to Lake Superior. I’ll be skiing the lakes—they are looking good and frozen now—and snowshoeing the portages. 
Q | Are you traveling with anyone else?
Just me and Diggins.

Q | What’s your goal with the trip?
Just continuing to promote sacred spaces. They’re still wild and uninhabited and we’re trying to keep it like that. 

Q | Do you need a long break between these hikes?
Yes, it’s good. A lot of people end up with some pretty bad depression afterward, and I did. It’s called the post-hike blues. I did a whole post on it. You get really sad. Your serotonin levels are a lot lower. Your purpose in life becomes your work again, and you know, life is a little bit easier on the trail. It took me quite a while to get out of that rut, so it’s really good for me to be home. To be home with my partner and my other dog and see my therapist and be mindful of what is going on mentally. Especially now that the weather has turned cooler, I’m super excited to go do something.

Keep track of Ford and her adventures on Instagram @emilyontrail.