New children's book captures story of Duluth outdoor adventurer
"I Am Emily" aims to inspire all kids to follow in the bootsteps of Emily Ford.
DULUTH — Dineo Dowd was attempting to catch up to Emily Ford along Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail, trying to find her new hero where the trail meandered near Dowd’s home in southern Wisconsin.
But Dowd kept missing Ford along the way.
“I was following her progress on social media and I really wanted to meet her. … But whenever I tried to pick a spot, I found out she had already been there,” Dowd told the News Tribune.
That was back in February 2021, as Dowd and thousands of other people were following Ford’s 1,136-mile solo winter trek along the famed hiking trail that zig-zags across the Badger State.
Dowd and her daughter, Armani, were inspired by Ford’s tenacity, spirit and message of outdoor inclusivity — encouraging women, children and people of color to get outdoors.
“She was our hero. My daughter was 7 at the time and we thought this was such a great story,” Dowd said.
They eventually packed up the family car and headed north, because they knew they wouldn’t miss Ford at the end of the trail, at Interstate State Park near St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. And on a cold Saturday in March, they finally got to meet their hero face-to-face, as did dozens of other people who had gathered to greet Ford and her sidekick sled dog, Diggins.
“It was a long drive. But we wanted to be there when Emily made history,” Dowd said. “It’s good for kids to know about the people like them who do these amazing things.”
But as Dowd tried to explain to Armani what was going on, why so many people were interested in Ford's trek, and the importance of Ford’s mission, it dawned on her that the story needed to be told to children in a way they could easily understand. And that’s the story behind “I Am Emily,” Dowd’s new children’s book based on Ford’s epic hike.
“Emily agreed it would be a great idea,” Dowd said.
Like Ford, Dowd is a Black woman who loves the outdoors. Like Ford, Dowd has tried to inspire people of color, women and children to get outdoors. Dowd is an author, blogger and social media influencer. She has a website and blog at wiadventurefamily.com , and the family indeed is outdoors as much as they are in.
“I wanted to raise my daughter outdoors. But I also wanted her to be able to read about other people who do the same. I just couldn’t find any children’s books that would inspire her to go outside for a hike,” Dowd said. “So I wrote my own books.”
Since she became a mom, Dowd noted, she has tried to take her daughter on an outdoor adventure every day of the year. “I have learned to embrace every season,” she said.
Dowd, a native of South Africa, said she grew up not knowing that the outdoors was available to young black people. In South Africa, she said, Black people simply didn’t go camping or hiking much — at first because they weren’t allowed but then because they had no culture of outdoor recreation, no history.
“Finally we just started going on hikes and taking advantage of what was there,” said Dowd, who returned to Africa this past summer and summited Mount Kilimanjaro.
Dowd has lived in the Madison area with her husband for about five years. She started writing and publishing children’s books, mostly aimed at the outdoors, soon after she arrived in Wisconsin. Most of the books include characters with diverse backgrounds. Dowd said she shares Ford’s passion for breaking the stereotype that outdoor activities are just for white people.
The book, Dowd said, “is a good opportunity to keep the story alive. When my daughter speaks of Emmie, many of her friends don’t know about her, so now they can find out.”
For her part, Ford said she was confident with Dowd’s request to write the book even though they had never met before. She said Dowd shares her mission for inclusivity outdoors.
“I think especially since it’s a children's book, that’s what made me say 'yes,'” Ford told the News Tribune.
Months after meeting at the end of the Ice Age Trail trip, Dowd sent Ford the illustrations being used for the book.
“It looks like a great children’s book, something they would read, especially because there's a dog in it,” Ford noted. “Hopefully, this may inspire some kids to get outside that maybe otherwise wouldn't feel comfortable going.”
Ford 'relaxing' at Alaska sled dog kennel
Ford says she’s taking the winter off from any major outdoor travel adventure, taking a year off from any cause, to "relax" and focus on self.
She's working until February at a sled dog kennel in Willow, Alaska, where she's helping get a dog team ready for the Iditarod sled dog race.
So far, the Alaska cold has made the Duluth resident feel right at home. She says Alaska sled dogs “are fun to work with but are way more work than Canadian Inuit sled dogs.”
Ford noted that she isn’t minding Alaska’s long days of midwinter darkness.
“I was a little worried about so few hours of light, but there is such beauty in the low hanging sun moving across the sky,” she posted on Instagram recently.
Ford reports that the sled dog kennel lifestyle is hard work, noting dealing with the dogs takes most of her waking hours. Last weekend, they loaded the dogs into a truck and headed to the mountains for three days.
And for those wondering, yes, Diggins joined Ford on the trip and is doing just fine, back to pulling a sled.
“She runs with the team and pulls beautifully,” Ford reported. “I can tell that this is what she was made for and it brings me so much joy to see her in her sport.”
Ford said she'll be back at the Glensheen mansion in Duluth, where she's the head gardener, for the coming growing season and that she’s unsure yet what her next big adventure may be next winter, possibly another big hike or maybe a dog sled race.
“I may have one race in me, but it’s an expensive sport,” she said.
Ford, now 30, was only the second person known to complete the entire Ice Age Trail in winter. 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, heralded as an inspiration to girls, women and people of color to get outdoors.
There have been magazine stories and television interviews and Ford now has more than 20,000 followers as " Emily on Trail " on Instagram. Ford’s Ice Age Trail journey became a short documentary film called “Breaking Trail,” that was featured in Canada’s Banff Film Festival that focuses on outdoor adventure.
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 and have another dog in addition to Diggins. Her job at Glensheen affords her little time off during the growing season but a mostly wide-open winter.
Last winter, Ford skied across the top of Minnesota, with Diggins along again, from Voyageurs National Park on the west, across the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, along the Ontario border, all the way to near Grand Marais and Lake Superior — mostly following the route used for centuries by native peoples and the Voyageur fur traders. She finished the nearly 200-mile trek, at times through deep snow and brutally cold conditions, in 28 days.
She had dedicated her journey to protecting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and encouraging more people of color to experience the wilderness first-hand, and she became a spokesperson for the Friends of the Boundary Waters environmental group.
Like the Ice Age Trail trip, her ski trek also was made into a short film, “A Voice for the Wild,” that was featured at the Banff Film Festival in November.
Buy the book
- “I Am Emily”
- Self-published by author Dineo Dowd
- $21.99 hardcover, $14.99 paperback, $2.99 e-book
- Available to order through local bookstores, Barnes and Noble and Amazon.
- 37 pages, fully illustrated children’s book aimed at ages 3-8.
- To see Dineo Dowd’s other books or read her blog posts, go to wiadventurefamily.com.