Thru-Hiker Interview with Emily Ford


As you know, I’m a day hiker. Day hikes are out and backs where at the end of they day the hiker sleeps somewhere that is not considered camping, mostly. Keltin and I are working on overnight backpacking but even that is small compared with thru-hiking. Today I am super happy to announce that I had the opportunity to interview Emily Ford. She is the first woman to complete the Ice Age Trail solo in winter – well mostly solo. She was accompanied by the beautiful sled dog Diggins. This thru-trail is 1,200 miles, that’s no small feat. I hope you all enjoy this interview.

There are a number of thru-hikes, some more well known than others, why the Ice Age Trail and why in winter?

I have a job that allows me to be away for 3 months in the winter. It’s kind of my only option of season to complete a long trip! I also love winter. I’ve been wanting to do a long hike in the winter since I moved to Duluth. In the states (Lower 48 at least) heaps of people complain about winter, but I love it. It’s quiet and dark. It’s a good resting season.

It has been several months now since your completion of the Ice Age Trail, what are your thoughts looking back?

Ha, this is a good question. Oof, I wish I were a better typist. I think I could write you a novel. I still long to be back on the trail. My life is really good on this side of life, but there is something about hiking all day long with my dog day after day that I really love. Other thoughts include how crazy my life feels with it being a bit more public. I am learning what this looks like for my partner and me. Going through the hiker low straight after getting home was tough. But it made me reflect on my mental health and how I relate to others. I would happily do it again, just on a different trail.

I understand that you borrowed much of the gear that you used for this trek, how did you find it all? 

I have such a good community. I borrowed my tent from a former boss of mine. She and her husband have supported my crazy outdoor ideas. I’m super thankful for that tent. It was heavy and old (1989) but it worked really well. Everyone knows Diggins (of whom we call Dig Dig now). She was named after Jessie Diggins, our Olympic Skier. I was told by a buddy to post on a mushers site to ask for a dog to borrow. I thought it was absurd, but I trust her judgment! One person responded and it was Cheri Beatty. She had a new dog that just had pups 8 months back. Beargrease was canceled so she wouldn’t be running for the winter. I went to go meet her and we became fast friends. I took her on a couple shake down trips and that was that.

Diggins lives with you now. How did that happen? How are things going?

I was having a hard time after my trip so I asked to borrow her for a small weekend trip. I ended up asking my partner if they wanted to come. So we took our other dog as well. Everyone got along well enough, so my partner was like “ask to see if we can keep her.” Cheri said yes and so we did. It was a bit rocky at first with our other dog, but we took Diggins to dog class and worked a lot with her. She’s a fun dog to have. She’s quite cuddly, but I often have to remind her that she’s not alpha.

You shared this hike on Instagram, did it change the journey for you at all when you gained a larger following? Did the attention surprise you?

Mmm, I dunno if it changed much for me – except that heaps more people left me trail magic, which was awesome. I didn’t really realize the impact the trip was making on others. Since my phone was on airplane mode for most of the time, I couldn’t really keep up with everyone’s comments. I think that impacted my family more than me since they could read all of the comments as they came in. For better or worse.

Your hike made you an inspirational figure for people of color, for women, and for the LGBTQ+ community. How does that feel and how do you handle the expectations that have been put on your shoulders?

For never being in this position before, I think I’m doing ok. (I’m kind of a terrible “influencer”). I think I’m trying to just live my life, document what seems semi interesting, while still talking about the hard bits. I answer questions when I can, give talks when I have time and try to remember that my family comes first.

What did your partner and family think of you doing this trail on your own?

Ha, “sounds about right”. I love hiking solo. I love having a dog. I love winter. They were ultra supportive and we set up a good communication system.

Do you have any thoughts for those that might want to get it to backpacking themselves?

Start small, borrow gear and get to it. Be safe, tell folks about where your going, make a plan, but be ready to be flexible. BRING WATER NO MATTER HOW FAR YOU HIKE. If something happens, water is the thing that will save your life.

From all of your outdoor experiences, is there a memory that sticks with you either due to its magic or the contentment you felt at that moment?

Anytime that I have to get up and pee at night. I know it seems odd, especially in the winter, but the stars in the winter are friggin beautiful. Especially at something like 3AM. It’s so quiet. And then I know that there’s a warm sleeping bag waiting for me in my tent.

What was the moment when you realized that you were going to complete this trail?

Uhm, the beginning? Many many folks have asked me if I ever wanted to quit. It never crossed my mind. When I finished, I was happy, but I didn’t want it to be over.

Are you planning any additional thru-hikes?

Diggins and I will be traversing the boundary waters this winter. 🙂 We will be partnering with Friends of the Boundary Waters.

There was a documentary done about your hike, what can you tell us about it?

Breaking trail! Yeah! It’ll be showing at the Banff Film Festival on the 7th of November. More information can be found here.

As Covid-19 surges amidst ongoing civil unrest, Emily Ford sets out with a borrowed sled dog named Diggins to become the first woman and person of color to thru-hike the 1900 km Ice Age Trail in winter. As the 69-day journey through subzero temperatures tests her physical and mental endurance, Emily and her canine protector develop an unbreakable bond as they embrace the unexpected kindness of strangers.”

– Synopsis from the Banff Film Festival site

If you want to follow Emily Ford on all of her hikes and morning bike rides with Dig-Dig check out her Instagram here @emilyontrail.

I really hoped that you enjoyed this interview, Emily was great to work with and provided wonderful information and pictures. If you enjoyed this interview and are interested in seeing more please let me know. If you have suggestions regarding hikers or outdoor companies that you would like me to talk to, feel free to let me know. Remember leave no trace and safe travels.

All images are property of Emily Ford and were provided by her for use in this post.

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