Emily Ford | Lessons from the Winter Trail

People, Recreation

Emily and Diggins outside their tent in the BWCA.
Emily and Diggins setting up camp for the night. Photo: Emily Ford

Adventurer Emily Ford and her dog, Diggins, team up for an inspiring Boundary Waters adventure

The defining moment of Emily Ford’s journey across the Boundary Waters came seven days into the expedition, when she fell through the ice.

The sun had set, stars pierced the sky. She had arrived at camp tired, hungry, and exhausted from breaking through miles of deep snow. Diggins, her dog, was inside the tent, curled up and asleep. But there were still chores to do, equipment to unpack, gear to put away. Before eating, she went to fetch water from an incoming stream near the portage trail she would take the next morning. The ice was thin near the open water. She knew she should not be there.

In an instant, miles away from any road, isolated in a frigid winter night, she broke through and was immersed in freezing water.

“Almost immediately, my training kicked in. I took stock of the situation, put my arms out and pulled myself onto the ice.” Before setting out, Ford had practiced how to handle cold water submersion on polar training expeditions, and regularly cut holes in the ice to mentally and physically prepare for extreme conditions.

“I talked out loud to myself, walking myself through everything I needed to do. I changed out of my top layers, gathered firewood, built a fire, made hot water, ate, changed out of my bottom layers. While my wet clothes dried by the fire, I kept thinking that I could hit the SOS button and get rescued. That was an option. But I didn’t, and that’s the point when I knew I was going to make it, not just that night, but the entire trip.”

Hours later, the sun was up and Ford was awake. She packed her sled, put a harness on herself and Diggins, and set out on the portage trail near where she had broken through the ice. In 2021, Ford gained national attention after hiking over 1,200-miles across Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail, in winter. The journey was remarkable in itself, but it was Ford’s role as a Black woman, representing people who are not often seen in the wilderness, that elevated the adventure and made her a role model for people across the country.

Since then, her journey has been showcased in an award winning documentary, numerous speaking events and articles in major publications. Ford’s job as the head gardener at the Glensheen Mansion in Duluth allows her to have winters off, which makes it easy for her to set her sights on more cold-weather adventures.

Almost immediately, Ford realized there would be a learning curve. This came on what she says was the hardest day of the entire trip: The first day.

Diggins hunkering down in the snow. Photo: Emily Ford
Diggins hunkering down in the snow. Photo: Emily Ford

Ford began on Crane Lake, where cold wind ripped over the bare expanse of ice and snow. That morning, a few snowmobilers told Ford to look for a well-worn portage trail that would bring her into Little Vermilion Lake. Ford admits that at the time, she did not know what signs to look for when scouting for a portage trail. So when she came to what was clearly a trail, she assumed this was where she was supposed to go, even if there were no tracks and it had clearly not been used for a while.

Ford was then initiated into the grueling task of traveling on portage trails. Even with skis, she sank to her quads in the snow. Climbing a hill required her to almost crawl, and as she punched through the deep, soft snow. The sled, loaded with around 150-pounds of gear, continually tipped over, forcing her to stop and pull it upright. A few hundred feet of this was exhausting.

More than an hour passed. The trail narrowed. Ford took a bearing and realized she was clearly going the wrong direction.

She was on the wrong trail.

Towards nightfall, Ford was back on the lake, demoralized as the same bitterly cold wind hit her face. In a short amount of time she found the correct trail and was so overjoyed she began to cry.

Emily Ford sitting in a red tent with her ukulele in the snow.
Unwinding with her ukulele at the end of a long day. Photo: Emily Ford

In the following days, she encountered slush. Despite extreme colds, the snow on the lakes acted as a layer of insulation, melting the top of the ice, leaving inches of watery slush beneath the snow. In subzero temperatures, this slush quickly froze to Emily’s skis, forcing her to spend hours a day breaking clumps of ice off her skis.

These initial difficulties resulted in Ford making less distance than planned. But soon, she developed a routine that made everything more efficient and easier. What’s more, the rewards of the wilderness and the splendor of the Boundary Waters were everywhere. The solitude, the silence that was only interrupted by the crack of the ice, and the deep contentment that comes after a hard day on trail, affected Emily in ways she still does not fully understand.

Emily Ford in a red jacket with Shawn McCarty in a fur lined jacket on a frozen lake in the BWCA.
Emily with musher Shawn McCarty. Photo: Emily Ford

The treasures of solitude were complimented by the connections she made with other people. Ford was quickly tied into a vibrant community of people who use and love the Boundary Waters in the winter. Mushers helped with her resupply, a fisherman gave her a lake trout to cook for dinner, camp owners welcomed her in for a meal. Fellow travelers broke trail for her. “When someone breaks trail for you — I never felt so loved in my life!” says Ford. And the fresh orange one musher gave her was a snack beyond compare.

After exiting the Boundary Waters at the western end on South Fowl Lake, Ford intended to follow the Pigeon River and end on Lake Superior.

When she reached the river, it was wide open. The ice highway she planned to ski was free-flowing water.

The only way to Lake Superior was to either bush crash through the forest or march over roads. As much as she had pushed herself, and for all the harsh, beautiful conditions she had faced, she knew that this was the end. Conditions don’t always cooperate. She had traversed the Boundary Waters, which she had set out to do. Both disappointed and proud of herself and Diggins, she decided the trip was over.

Ford first visited the Boundary Waters with a friend’s family in high school. She has hiked the Kekekabec and Border Route trails, been on several winter trips, and before setting out this year, worked for a season guiding with Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge.

But the weeks Ford spent crossing the lakes and breaking through portage trails, being alone with Diggins and witness to the vastness of the wilderness, opened new insights into how interconnected it all was. The trails she followed were used by lynx and moose, the water under the ice flowed into lakes hundreds of miles away.

Bird's eye view of Emily Ford, her dog and her pulk on a frozen lake in the snow.
Photo Jesse Roessler / Credo Nonfiction

For Ford, this experience reinforced why it is crucial to protect not just for one lake or area, but the entire ecosystem. What happens at one corner of the wilderness can impact the entire area. Pollution from a copper-sulfide mine in the watershed could spread through the maze of water, permanently polluting this fragile, beautiful place.

But to protect it, people need to first see the value of the place. They need to feel the beauty of the Boundary Waters for themselves. In our increasingly diverse society, that means everyone, regardless of race, economic background or sexuality, should have the opportunity to experience the wild.

In her mission to make the outdoors accessible to everyone, to remove boundaries that prevent people of color from experiencing nature, Ford acknowledges that not everyone is going to fall in love with the outdoors. Many just don’t take to the wilderness like she has, and many don’t want to rough it.

Diggins sitting in a frozen landscape.
Photo: Jesse Roessler/Credo Nonfiction

But everyone faces challenges in their lives. Everyone faces their own version of freezing slush, waist-deep snow and piercing wind. Everyone comes to their own Pigeon River.

One of the greatest gifts the wilderness can give a person is to teach them how to handle the unexpected. In the wild, you learn this quickly. It is one of many reasons why Ford is committed to giving everyone the opportunity to experience the power of wild places like the Boundary Waters.

The goal of the trip is both to raise awareness of the threat proposed copper-sulfide mining poses to the Boundary Waters and to promote diversity and inclusivity in the wilderness. 

Your donation will support our No Boundaries to the Boundary Waters program, which gives kids from diverse backgrounds an opportunity to go on week long trips to the Boundary Waters.

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