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WXPR's We Live Up Here series is a home for stories that focus on the people, history, and culture that make the Northwoods of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan such a unique place to live.

Ice Age Hiker and Quiet Activist

For Duluth, Minnesota resident, Emily Ford, a “hike” isn’t a leisurely stroll through the woods in a t-shirt and shorts. This winter, it’s a trudge through snow, ice, and cold across Wisconsin. Ford is hiking the entire twelve hundred miles of the Ice Age Trail in the state, setting a lot of “firsts” as she does it.

I hiked along with Ford and her dog, Diggins, for a time on a -14 degree bone-chilling but sunny morning on the Summit Moraine Segment just north of Antigo. On this stretch of the trail through Langlade County, Ford has rarely seen anyone, so she seemed happy for the company. Not so much for Diggins who stopped and faced me several times. Ford, while urging Diggins on, told me with a giggle that Diggins had become protective during the journey.

Credit Image Courtesy of Emily Ford
Emily Ford and Diggins

“She does a great job. She hangs out in front of me and she is tethered to me as we walk. We have become great friends.”

Diggins, an Alaskan Husky, is on loan from a sled dog kennel. Since December 28th they have been walking 15 to 20 miles per day and become quite close after walking the first 750 miles of the journey across Wisconsin on the Ice Age Trail.

Ford carries a full pack and today she feels fortunate that this segment of the Ice Age Trail is also a groomed snowmobile trail. Ford and Diggins maintain a fast pace as the trail winds through the hardwoods. Despite the cold, today they will walk until dark and then camp out on the trail.

“The hard part is going to bed and waking up and it is snowing inside my tent as all the moisture from Diggins and myself breathing all night long. My sleeping bag is moist or frozen. Trying to figure out how to dry out the stuff day in and day out.is a challenge.”

Credit Image Courtesy of Emily Ford
Emily Ford after a long day's hike

During the extreme cold she has been accepting offers from what she calls “trail angels,” who are people who offer their homes for a hot shower and a warm bed, which keeps her and Diggins physically and mentally fit. Their goal is not to sleep out every night, but rather to thru-hike the trail, which means to walk the entire trail length from Door County to St. Croix on the Minnesota border.

According to Langlade County Ice Age Trail Chapter Coordinator, Joe Jopek of Antigo, the first person to thru-hike the trail in the winter was Mike Sommer.

“He did it in 2016 and 2017.”

Jopek has been coordinator of the trail since 1973 and he and a team of volunteers created the 50 miles of trails through the county, which includes five segments, each from 9 to 12 miles in length.

“Here in Langlade County there are very distinctive features and landforms. That is basically the goal of the Ice Age Trail. To develop a greater appreciation of the landforms that forms the areas that we live in.” 

When Ford completes the journey, likely sometime in early March, her name will also be remembered as well.  

“I will be the first woman to thru-hike the trail in the wintertime. And first black woman, first queer woman.”

But her objective is not just to get into the record books, but also to hike for social and racial justice. After George Floyd was murdered, she wanted to do something but, unlike many of her friends, she was not sure how she fit in.

“I don’t rally. I don’t do this and I don’t do that. Where is my space in this? The outdoors is where my space is. I know not everyone feels comfortable hiking, especially people of color.”

While hiking over the years she rarely sees people of color.

“Also, I really like backpacking. Kind of a nice combo to fight for something and really doing something I love. That is what this trip is all about. I think the outdoors is for everybody. Everybody should feel comfortable outdoors.”

Credit Image Courtesy of Emily Ford
Diggins Breaking Trail

It is not Ford’s style to attend rallies or give speeches. But her trek through Wisconsin with her borrowed dog, Diggins, speaks louder than words. She recounts that people feared for her safety when she first told them about her hike, but she has only been met along the trail by smiles, friendly people, and often gifts of food.  

“Nature is one of the great equalizers. Everybody gets cold, everybody gets hot, it is hard for people to go up a hill. It is hard on the body to be outside sometime. The great equalizer is that nature is beautiful, it is calming and centering.

One of the hardest parts of the journey, she predicts, will be saying goodbye to Diggins who will have to return to her home and job as a lead sled dog.

“The last few days we are going to have a few heart to hearts. About that we really won’t be able to see each other anymore.”

When it was time for me to say goodbye and head back to my warm vehicle, no one was more pleased than Diggins, who was ready to get back to work without distraction.  

To learn about Ford’s journey you can follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

James M. Skibo is Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University. He is the author of five books, including two written for the general audience, Ants for Breakfast, and Bear Cave Hill. In 2021 James moved to the Madison area and is now the State Archeologist.