While the frigid temperatures and snow may keep many indoors this time of year, Emily Ford is taking on an intense challenge: thru-hiking the Ice Age Trail.
With a 65-pound pack and a sled dog named Diggins by her side, Ford is well on her way to becoming both the first known Black person and woman to thru-hike the 1,200-mile trail in the winter.
When the idea first came to Ford last year, it was a desire to just take a really long hike, she said. As a Duluth native and lifelong lover of the outdoors, the timing made sense. She likes winter, and has the winter months off from her job as a professional gardener.
But when the protests over racial justice began in her home state after the killing of George Floyd, she started to imagine the trip could be something more, and started thinking of ways she could contribute.
"I was trying to find my spot in the racial justice movement, and it turned into a kind of equality and spaces, outdoor spaces, and advocating for that a little bit, very quietly," Ford said.
"This is my passion," she continued. "Finding your passion and showing up, even if you just do a little bit, then that little spark inspires others to just do a little bit, and so on and so forth. It's easy to catch a blaze with little sparks."
Ford hopes her journey will inspire others to feel comfortable in the outdoors. But she also pointed to a social media post she recently stumbled across saying, "If you think Black people aren’t outside, maybe your social feed is just a mirror of yourself."
"I think they are still majority white spaces that are now being reclaimed by everybody else," Ford said. "It just takes one person at a time doing the thing to make other people feel more comfortable."
As for whether outdoor spaces are unwelcoming to people of color, Ford hopes that conversation is changing.
"From my observations, sometimes I think it's unintentionally unwelcoming, and we're learning how to be intentional with each other and be kind to each other," Ford said. "And that takes a lot of work. I'm hoping that over time we won't have to use the language of unwelcoming."
Currently on day 59 of her journey, the 28-year-old began the trek at Potawatomi State Park on the shores of Lake Michigan in Door County and is traveling west to the St. Croix River at the Minnesota-Wisconsin border.
Hiking for that long, predominantly alone, poses mental challenges as well, and leaves a lot of time for reflection. Ford said she hasn’t had time to process the magnitude of what she’s doing yet, but the solitude has forced her to, perhaps ironically, slow down and understand the power of rest.
"There's something called a zero day ... where you don't hike any miles," she said. "I'm not very good at taking zero days, and I've had to really force myself into it on this trail — to be kind to myself. Being kind to others sometimes comes easier to me than being kind to myself. Learning how to do that has been the greatest thing I've learned so far."
Thankfully she has company with her 3-year-old Alaskan Husky, Diggins.
"We’re literally attached to each other all day long," Ford said. "I'm super thankful … you don't have to have a dog to do long trips like this … but she has made this trip such a delight."
The "trail angels," people who offer a warm bed or hot meal, Ford has met, have also been a welcome comfort and opportunity to have good conversation along the way. Nights she doesn't stay with trail angels, she camps along the trail with Diggins. And as she approaches the final stretch of her nearly three-month long journey, Ford has given a lot of thought to the good things that can happen when people work together and support each other.
"When people can be united behind one good cause, people become exceptional and very kind, and it's a part of humanity that I don't think we really talk about or see because it's not always newsworthy," she said.