By Emily Ford
Winter in Northern Minnesota is generally loved by some and loathed by others. I’m not sure if it’s due to the frigid temps or its drawn-out length. Winter weather can start as early as September and hold on all the way until May, and the temperatures vary from 40℉ to
-50℉. For the folks that don’t love winter, I get it. I will say, however, that it is usually people that don’t have anything to do in the winter besides wake up, go to work, watch tv and go to bed. If I couldn’t play with winter, I would hate her, too.
“For the folks that don’t love winter, I get it. I will say, however, that it is usually people that don’t have anything to do in the winter besides wake up, go to work, watch tv and go to bed. If I couldn’t play with winter, I would hate her, too.”
My current job is Head Gardener at a historic house museum. I work there for nine months out of the year growing flowers and food and educating people on the historic times of the early 1900s. The best part about my work is that I get to be outside all day long in any type of weather. I have had to learn how to read the sky and understand how quickly weather can change locally. This particular house museum sits right on the shore of the world’s largest lake, Superior.
Lake Superior can feel like a freshwater ocean; she swells and rips and in turn can be flat and glassy. Her watershed stretches for miles and miles, calling all streams and riverbeds to her. The surface of the lake is 31,700 square miles, is 1,300 feet deep at the deepest point, and has a watershed of 49,000 square miles. I have spent the last seven years swimming, paddling, and fishing on and in Lake Superior. Her waters are bone-chilling even long after summer solstice has passed. The surface temperature can read at 40℉, cold enough to strike you with hypothermia if you stay in her icy grasp too long. Regardless of her temperatures, I love to swim in her every month.
Cold water plunging has become a love of mine. It is a practice that is well paired with sauna in the winter. I cannot say that I grew up with this practice, but as I’ve gotten older, I have fallen in love with it. I remember the first time I went through an ice hole. My co-workers at a guiding company I worked at took a chainsaw to the ice so that we could run down the hill from the sauna after a long day of skiing and cool down. I had been in cold water before, but not through an ice hole.
In the moment it became a mind over matter situation as I stared down the black icy hole with nothing on except shorts, a sports bra, and crocs. The air temp was colder than the water and I started my quick-breathing exercises. This gave me and my body a sense of control. Before I knew it, I slipped my body into the lake and felt cold surround me, swirling and sweeping any heat away. But I wasn’t afraid. I felt calm and all my anxieties froze out and fell away with my body temperature. It felt like I was in there for a very long time, but in reality, it was maybe three minutes or so before I sprinted back up the hill to warm up in the 190℉ sauna. Over time and with more practice I spent up to 15 minutes in the ice hole, and anytime anywhere I see a hole in ice large enough for a human body to slip through, I feel the pull of the water calling me to come in.
“Before I knew it, I slipped my body into the lake and felt cold surround me, swirling and sweeping any heat away. But I wasn’t afraid. I felt calm and all my anxieties froze out and fell away with my body temperature.”
Along with a growing love for cold water, I am drawn to cold weather expeditions. My future goals include skiing Antarctica, Greenland, the Arctic, and the North Pole. I’m not sure how this happened. Perhaps in a similar way that it did with cold water plunging; I tried it once and couldn’t ever get enough. My first trip was in the winter of 2021 across Wisconsin. 69 days and 1,200 miles later, I already knew I wanted more. The winter trip of 2022 became a winter skijor across the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Wilderness (BWCA). The BWCA is one of the last largest protected wilderness areas in the United States, coming in at 1,098,000 acres packed with 2,000 lakes. In short: no buildings, no roads, no mining or development, barely any cell service, and filled to the brim with wildlife and solitude. Many people paddle the BWCA lakes during the open water seasons, but the draw of winter was much more enticing to me. I have never seen such vastness and heard such silence in my life! The flat stretches of snow- and ice-covered lakes allowed for my husky, Diggins, and myself to ski 180 miles from Crane Lake to South Fowl Lake.
This was, perhaps, the most challenging trip I had ever been on. The BWCA is quite void of humans in the winter, and if you run into trouble, you are the only one to save yourself. Of course, I carry a Garmin InReach to communicate with the outside world, which has an SOS function, but depending on your location, it can take 24-48 hours before search and rescue can come to save you.
Reading the ice is one skill that I vow to never lose. I also know that no matter how well you can read the ice, there can always be a mystery below. Reading the ice includes looking for thin spots, knowing where there’s potential slush, knowing the difference between being on a small lake, big lake, or a running river, and so on.
One night after a particularly long day of skiing and searching for portages, I finally started to wind down my day. I found a great spot next to a river that had easy access to water. Melting snow takes a lot of fuel since snowflakes are 90% air, so any time there is liquid water, I delighted in that option. Hours before I had been skiing up and down this river searching for the portage to break trail the next day. We were 1/8 mile down from a waterfall and needed to take the trail. After setting up the tent and feeding Diggins, I went to go take water from the river. In my exhausted state, I forgot how thin the ice was and that the only reason I didn’t fall through before was due to being on my skis. They distribute my 180 pounds over two six-foot lengths vs. my 11-inch feet. I tapped the ice to work on a hole and the world fell out from beneath me. In seconds I was up to my chest in icy flowing water. My Nalgene water bottle released itself from the cap and was nowhere to be found. I remembered that my phone was in my pocket at the same time I remembered that I needed to get out of the ice. I had trained for this. Not only had I been practicing cold water plunges, but I had trained with the Polar Explorers on how to get out of the ice if you fall through. I turned myself around to where I knew the ice was solid, put my elbows up the ledge, and kicked my legs to thrust myself out of the river. Grabbed my phone and shut it off. Thankfully it was -26℉ and everything froze before water could seep into the electronics of my phone. I could feel the water freezing on the exterior of my clothes so fast. I felt so stupid. I made a rookie mistake. I knew better. But there’s not much time to beat yourself up when you’re trying to beat the hypothermia clock.
“I could feel the water freezing on the exterior of my clothes so fast. I felt so stupid. I made a rookie mistake. I knew better. But there’s not much time to beat yourself up when you’re trying to beat the hypothermia clock.”
Thankfully I already had the tent set up and Diggins was fast asleep. I plopped myself on the edge of the tent in my vestibule, collected my thoughts, and began to make a list. I repeated over and over the things I needed to get done:
“Get phone dry and warm, take off wet clothes, but not all of them, I need to make a fire. I need my ski boots on. I need to eat. I need to make a fire. I need to collect wood. I need to eat. I’ll eat later. Take off shirt, take off bra, put on dry wool clothes, put on dry mittens. Hat, Emily you need a hat. Keep the heat in. Fire, go build a fire, find wood, don’t forget to eat. I’ll eat later…”
I ended up putting my phone in an extra set of mittens with two hand warmers. I propped it upright and out of its case so that the water wouldn’t drain in while it thawed out. I built a fire and took off the rest of my clothes and things dried out. I finally got myself to eat a Snickers and a full meal before I fell asleep at 4:00 the next morning.
Diggins slept through this whole event.
I still love cold water and cold weather. I learned a lot about myself that night. I learned that when I’m tired, I don’t always think clearly, but when I am in a crisis, I can think through hard situations. Being alone can be scary, but it also became an opportunity for me to show up for myself. To focus and take care of me.
The next morning when I packed up our lives to move on to the next site, I could feel the pull of the cold water, not beckoning me back in, but to be aware and humble as I continued my journey. I then understood that not all rivers will be this nice. I understood that water gives life, but in the same breath it can take it. The river gave me back my Nalgene in the morning. It was nestled gently between ice buildup and some rocks.
21 days later I found myself greeted by the Pigeon River, wide open and freely flowing. I knew all that I needed to know that I had to end my journey early. Some may say it was a fear-based decision, but it was more of a respect-based decision. I will never attempt to conquer the wilderness. I am here to be in it and a part of it. The wilderness is for everyone.
Emily Ford is an aspiring winter adventurer and thru hiker based in Duluth, Minnesota. She has completed many thru hikes in the Midwest, including the 1,200-mile Ice age trail, which crosses Wisconsin east to west from Potawatomi State Park to St. Croix State Park on the Minnesota border. In the winter of 2022, she completed a solo 180-mile ski route across the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Wilderness with her Alaskan Husky, Diggins. With an understanding and drive to show that anyone can adventure and everyone deserves to discover the outdoors, regardless of race, gender identity, or upbringing, she continues to seek adventure and represent the underrepresented in outdoor spaces. Follow her at @emilyontrail.