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Woman on her thru-hike of the Ice Age Trail in winter: 'Me being me'

Woman on her thru-hike of the Ice Age Trail in winter: 'Me being me'

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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, too.

Her race (she's Black) and sex have been a prominent storyline 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-distance 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 is the first person to thru-hike 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 also 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. I am just impressed with this person. It seems like she has her head straight on her shoulders," Summers said.

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


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