After trudging through more than 500 miles of snow-packed Wisconsin trails in record-setting cold temperatures this January, Duluth native Emily Ford was spending a much-needed “zero day” resting like any good millennial would: By surfing Instagram while cuddling a dog. With 700 miles of trail ahead of her to complete, Ford would need all the rest she could get from this brief respite.
Ford, 29, and her borrowed sled dog companion, Diggins, were about halfway through their epic quest to hike the glacially hewn Ice Age Trail (IAT) in Wisconsin. A popular path for day hikes in the summer, the 1,200-mile trail runs from Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula to the Minnesota border. If she was able to traverse the entire trail, Ford would make history as only the second documented person—as well as the first woman and the first person of color—to complete the feat in winter. When she set out the last few days of 2020, she announced the plan to her few hundred Instagram followers, which quickly grew into the thousands. Her DMs were flooded with encouraging messages and promises of “trail magic” treats from followers inspired by her journey. But one message on this “zero day” stood out: It was from a filmmaker who wanted Ford to let him make a documentary about her hike. She wasn’t so sure.
“Being alone was like pretty sacred to me—that was kind of the whole point, right?” she says. “I didn’t want this film crew following me around.”
That film crew turned out to be just one man, Jesse Roesler, founder of Minneapolis-based studio Credo Nonfiction. Roesler’s home in western Wisconsin abuts the IAT, and he and his wife and business partner regularly hike sections of it, albeit in the warmer months. After a few phone calls, Roesler and Ford realized they shared a lot of the same values, like the importance of highlighting diversity in the outdoors. So Ford agreed to let Roesler document the remainder of the journey.
With plenty of time on the trail to chat during shoot days, Ford and Roesler quickly developed a friendship. Diggins, however, remained skeptical. Roesler remembers attempting to pass Ford a microphone at one point early in their journey and receiving a stern nip from Diggins for intruding on her trail buddy’s personal space.
“She was a true protector,” Roesler says ruefully.
“Diggins never liked him, but Diggins doesn’t really like anybody … she was really possessive of me,” Ford says with a laugh. “I don’t know if he’s ever been able to pet her.”
Ford and Diggins marched steadily westward through crushing windchills that dropped as low as minus-53 degrees, with Roesler paying them visits every few days to track their progress and provide fuel in the form of gas station sandwiches and hot cocoa.
“I don’t know how this started, but something about Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ was bangin’ in for her,” Roesler recalls. “So I’d come in with that song blaring and some gas station sandwiches for her, and that would be the wake-up call for the day to get back up on the trail.”
As the trio crisscrossed Wisconsin on the IAT’s final leg, the first signs of spring came with more gift bags and notes of encouragement appearing along the trail. Hikers of color reached out to her on social media to tell her how her adventure had served as an inspiration for their own love of the outdoors. Ford and Diggins paid a visit to an elementary school and talked to kids, who toted handmade signs of support, about hiking and the outdoors.
Ford’s 1,200-mile voyage culminated March 6 in a tearful reunion with family, friends, and throngs of supporters at Interstate State Park on Wisconsin’s westernmost edge, all captured beautifully in Roesler’s 30-minute documentary Breaking Trail. The film, which premieres at Banff Mountain Film Festival at the end of October, paints a heartwarming portrait of Ford and Diggins’ deep bond, as well as nature’s ability to unite people across racial and cultural lines. It also serves as a testament to Ford’s towering athletic achievement as the first woman (and an LGBTQ woman of color at that) to traverse the Ice Age Trail in the wintertime. She did it in just 69 days.
“No matter what you look like, no matter who you are, whatever box you check, the outdoors is for you,” Ford says.