Inspiration on the Ice Age Trail

Gustavus alumna Emily Ford '15 is in the midst of a 1,200-mile winter solo thru-hike of Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail.
Posted on January 21st, 2021 by

Emily Ford '15 and her hiking companion, Diggins.

Checking in from a windswept trailhead outside of Dayton, Wisconsin, Emily Ford ’15 has to put down the phone to exchange greetings with a well-wisher.

“Sorry about that,” Ford says when she’s back on the line. “There’s been so much support out here on the trail.”

“The trail” she’s referring to is Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail, a nearly 1,200-mile hiking path that is being carved across Wisconsin, following the contours left by ancient glaciers that shaped the state’s geography.

It’s Thursday, January 21. Ford has hiked 382 miles since starting her journey in Potawatomi State Park near Sturgeon Bay on December 28. She expects to finish in early March at the trail’s western terminus in St. Croix Falls.

A native of Brooklyn Park, Minn. and geology major, rugby player, and Collegiate Fellow during her time at Gustavus, Ford is no stranger to the outdoors. Her career as the head gardener at Glensheen Mansion in Duluth—where she’s been featured by Duluth Trading Co.—means that winter is her off season.

Diggins shows off her gear after a frosty day on the trail.

“I’d been looking for a long trail to hike for awhile before learning about the Ice Age Trail in the summer of 2019,” Ford says. “I checked out message boards and did some research on the internet to find a partner, looking for other people of color who are interested in backpacking or hiking. There are a lot of groups like that on the coasts and in the south, but I didn’t find much in the Midwest.”

Then 2020 happened.

“We’re living in a time of change,” Ford explains, mentioning renewed calls for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd and the constant uncertainty of COVID-19. “I was going to do the trip anyway, but everything coalesced.” She decided to strike out on her own.

When she’s not greeting other hikers or being supported by “trail angels” who drop off supplies or offer a warm place to sleep, Ford is alone except for the company of Diggins, an Alaskan husky sled dog named after Minnesota Olympic Nordic skier Jessie Diggins.

Almost a month into the experience, Ford and Diggins are covering 15 to 20 miles each day and camping most nights. “I’ve learned to listen to my body,” she says. “Doing a long-distance trip like this, you can’t just sprint through it. You’ve got to give yourself time to rest.”

Ford and Diggins are supported by a steady stream of people who have been inspired by the journey, leaving care packages along the way or joining for a short hike along the trail. Her fans follow along on Ford’s Instagram page, the Ice Age Trail Facebook page, or the Duluth News Tribune, all of which post regular updates on her progress.

“Winter is tough on people for a lot of reasons. I think this gives them something to look forward to,” Ford says. “I see it when I encounter people on the trail. They’re happy to see me…and it’s helpful for me too.”

The Gustie is a passionate advocate for outdoor recreation and hopes her journey inspires other people of color to hike, ski, or camp.

“Nature is a place of equality in society,” she says. “This is about opening the door for more people of color to enjoy the outdoors.”

“Nature treats us all the same.”

Want to follow Emily Ford’s progress? Check in here:


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication Luc Hatlestad



  1. HOWARD LOSO says:

    Outstanding and inspirational.

  2. MELISSA BEHR says:

    Emily and Diggins are such an inspiration. We were speaking of them when we hiked a short, beautiful segment of the trail today with our puppies, near Devil’s Lake. Congratulations from Madison WI for the incredible achievement, wonderful stories, and thoughtful attitude – Emily is making all of us think more, and better, about nature, and justice.

  3. Jack Marchese says:

    We are waiting for your safe arrival at Ice Age Trail terminus at Wisconsin Interstate Park in our town of St. Croix Falls WI. You will be welcomed by our City Council and Mayor.