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Duluth adventurer ready to ski across Minnesota-Ontario border

Emily Ford and her trusty sidekick, Diggins the sled dog, will spend 30 days trekking across the top of Minnesota.

Emily Ford and Diggins cross Boulder Lake.
Emily Ford and Diggins cross Boulder Lake shortly after sunrise Jan. 25, after sleeping out the night before. Ford plans to shortly begin a 30-day, 200-plus-mile trip along the Minnesota/Ontario border.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Intrepid hiker Emily Ford is back at it again this winter, heading out on a expedition that will take her and her four-legged companion, Diggins, on a ski trek across the top of Minnesota.

Ford, who last year became only the second person to hike all of Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail in winter, plans to ski out onto Crane Lake on Feb. 11 and spend the next 30 days along the Minnesota-Ontario border, a more-than-200-mile route.

“I wanted something more remote this year,” Ford said.

After 69 days on the trail, Ford becomes only the second person on record to complete a winter thru-hike of the trail.

Diggins will be breaking trail and pulling Ford skijoring style. Ford plans to ski most of the way across the borderland’s big, open lakes, but will also bring snowshoes for the on-land portages. She’ll be pulling a sled, or pulk, with all of her gear and provisions. And she hopes to ski into Grand Portage on Lake Superior sometime in mid-March.

Emily Ford and Diggins cross Boulder Lake.
Emily Ford and Diggins skijor on Boulder Lake shortly after sunrise Jan. 25.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Ford is looking forward to the sound of her skis on snow, the cracking of lake ice as it builds in below-zero temperatures and, quite likely, the howling of wolves.

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“I love the beauty of the Boundary Waters. I have a weird love for the Boundary Waters even though I haven’t been much of a paddler,” Ford told the News Tribune. “It’s just such a beautiful, quiet place. Quiet places, anywhere in the world, are just so rare.”

Ford, 29, will be retracing a route used for millennia by Native Americans, by the voyageurs of the fur trade era and last winter by Ty Olson. You may recall the News Tribune stories on Olson who skied from Rainy Lake to Grand Portage in 27 days and raised $43,000 to help heat homes on a South Dakota Indian reservation.

“I've talked to him a few times. Ty was a huge help. … He sent me all his maps and gave me a lot of good information on what to expect,” Ford said.

The trip from Rainy Lake to Lake Superior took 27 days, and covered 270 miles, as he raised $43,000 to heat homes on a South Dakota reservation.

Ford said she’s making the trip not just for her own adventure, but to draw attention to the ongoing need to preserve “wild, sacred places” like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

“A lot of people know about the Boundary Waters in the summer. But it’s so much more than that. I want to give it a face in the winter time,” Ford said.

Emily Ford route map
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

She’s hoping the people who follow her trek will come to better understand the value of preserving wild places from development and degradation. And she’s especially hoping that other people of color will come to know, appreciate and love the wilderness.

“It’s important that I be a face for people of color in the wilderness, that everyone knows that this treasure belongs to and is available to everyone, white folks and people of color,” she said.

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And she said she is fully aware that she'll be crossing land “stolen” from its original caretakers, Native Americans.

“I feel enormously blessed that I am allowed to trespass on their land,” she said. “We have claimed this as our playground, but they were using it way before any of us got here.”

A busy year

Ford made a bit of history and a splash onto the outdoor scene last winter by completing the 10-week, 1,136-mile trek along the entire length of the Ice Age Trail.

Since then she’s become a celebrity of sorts after widespread media and social media coverage of her expedition. She’s been invited to speak at outdoor events, and went to Canada for the Banff International Film Festival, which featured a short documentary film about her hike . (The same filmmaker will be documenting part of Ford’s ski trip, too.)

There have been magazine stories and television interviews and Ford now has nearly 15,000 followers as " Emily on Trail " on Instagram.

She also became so attached to Diggins, the sled dog she borrowed to accompany her on the Ice Age trail trip, that she permanently acquired the dog.

“We couldn’t not be together now,” she said.

Diggins and Emily Ford
Emily Ford and her adventure companion, Diggins, enjoy a moment of warm sunshine. The duo will be back on trail in a few days as they trek along the Minnesota/Ontario border from Crane Lake to Grand Portage.
Contributed / Emily Ford

Ford said she went through emotional ups and downs during a breathtaking year in 2021, but came through well, managing to keep her “on-trail personality” apart from her home life. She and her partner own a home in Duluth, have another dog in addition to Diggins, and Ford continues to work as the head gardener at Glensheen Mansion in Duluth, a job that affords her little time off during the growing season, but a mostly wide-open winter.

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“And because my archnemeses are mosquitoes and blackflies, I don’t mind doing my camping in the winter,” Ford noted.

It’s not that she likes being cold. But she’s come to accept it, tolerate it, even embrace it.

“I think anyone can adapt to it if you spend enough time outdoors in cold temperatures,” she said. “And if you have good gear.”

Ford said she’s learning to accept her new role as a role model, a spokesperson of sorts for people of color outdoors.

“I still feel the weight of that. But it’s not always there when I’m in my home life with two dogs and a house and a job,” she said. “I’m not just this crazy adventure person who does crazy things once every year. … I have a normal life, too.”

The ski trip

Ford hopes to check in with her social media followers when she's at the few places she will get cell phone coverage along the ski trip. She’ll also bring along a Garmin inReach satellite communication device for emergencies.

While she'll be pulling most of her gear, she’s also set up two resupply rendezvous points with folks from the Voyageur Outward Bound camp near Ely and Camp Menogyn on the Gunflint Trail. And she’s been stocking up on high-calorie food for both herself and Diggins, like tubs of pure lard (pork fat), which provides a lot of energy without having to eat very much. (Ford lost more than 20 pounds on her Wisconsin hike. She simply couldn’t eat enough to make up for the calories she burned in cold weather.)

Ford spent three weeks in December working at Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge north of Ely, guiding clients on dog sled trips and gaining backcountry winter travel tips from lodge owner Paul Schurke, a veteran of numerous wilderness and arctic expeditions.

Emily Ford frosted with ice
Emily Ford during an outing in December out of Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge near Ely. Ford guided sled dog trips out of the lodge as a chance to better know the border country where she will ski for 200 miles starting Feb. 11.
Contributed / Emily Ford

Schurke called Ford “as tough as nails,” and said he makes the perfect spokesperson for the BWCAW.

“We've really enjoyed having Emily on our Wintergreen guide team this season,” Schurke said. “We're rooting for her upcoming border route trek. And we applaud her growing status as a wilderness-equity advocate.”

Schukre said Ford “inspires new possibilities in the racial and gender justice movement, especially for inclusivity in outdoor recreation. And it's working,” Schurke said, noting his customers lately “have been far more diverse than ever before, including several mixed-race families who've been inspired by Emily's adventures.”

As she's gained new pieces of gear for her adventure Ford has been practicing with Diggins, skijoring and camping out overnight at Boulder Lake outside Duluth.

While she enjoyed the sometimes busy route of last winter’s hike, through cities, small towns and farmland as well as wooded areas, she won’t be meeting nearly as many people on this winter’s ski trip. She also won’t be the recipient of as much “trail magic,” where people who had followed her trip on social media brought her candy, clean socks, hand warmers and other provisions, even offering her a warm bed to sleep in on occasion. Along the route on the ski trip, she’s hoping to link up with some of her co-workers from Wintergreen. But she otherwise might go days with seeing another human.

And while she’s expecting to see far fewer people and hear far less noise, she will probably see more snow and more cold than she saw in Wisconsin.

Emily Ford takes pack off Diggins.
Emily Ford removes Diggins’ pack Jan. 25, 2022, after an overnight trip on Boulder Lake.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“I had a few 30 below nights last year. ... But they will probably be more common on this trip,” Ford said. That's why she’s using a two-sleeping-bag system to stay warm at night.

Her only hurry to finish is to get down the Pigeon River before it opens up with spring snowmelt. If that happens, making the ice unsafe, she'll have to reroute down a nearby snowmobile trail to get to the last 50 miles to Grand Portage, as did Ty Olson.

“I’m expecting a fairly slow pace. I’m giving myself a lot of time,” Ford said. “I feel really good about this trip. I’m super excited to see what’s out there.”

Follow emilyontrail

The News Tribune will report occasional updates on Ford’s progress. Ford will be posting as much as possible during her trip on Instagram at instagram.com/emilyontrail and on Facebook at facebook.com/emily.ford.1420.

Ty Olson’s trip

Olson left the Rainy Lake Visitors Center at Voyageurs National Park alone on Feb. 11, 2021, and skied into Grand Portage and up to Lake Superior on March 9, a bit under the 30 days he had figured, based on advice from famed polar explorer Will Steger, of Ely, in part because Olson hurried to beat melting snow and ice.

Olson crossed the frozen surfaces of 35 lakes and nine rivers and crossed land along 26 portages as he skied through Voyageurs and the BWCAW following the Minnesota-Ontario border nearly all the way.

He ran into wolves on several occasions, without incident, and also ran into polar explorer and Ely outfitter Paul Schurke who happened to be in the area with a team of sled dogs.

Temperatures ranged from nearly 40 below zero on the day Olson started to 40 above zero on his last days. He said the cold made the conditions easier and that the sunshine and mushy snow of warm days made for tough going, forcing him to ski at night on several occasions.

Olson, 32, was unsupported on the solo trip, meaning he hauled all of his food, white gas fuel (for cooking and melting water — he had no heat source) and gear with him for the entire route.

The Grafton, North Dakota, native started with 150 pounds of gear spread out on two sleds towed behind him as he skied. He varied from the actual border route only twice — once because of an open river, diverting to a nearby snowmobile trail, and again as he skied down the historic Grand Portage that skirts the untravelable Pigeon River as it runs into Lake Superior.

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John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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