By Linda Scherer
NEW GERMANY, MN Dogs have been called man’s best friend, but in the case of David and Shilon Bedford of New Germany, their Alaskan malamutes have been much more.
To begin with, the Bedford malamutes were the inspiration behind their family business, Black Ice, which supplies dogsledding equipment to customers all over the country, wherever there is snow.
The malamutes have also been responsible for much of the couple’s social networking, recreation, and have even brought the Bedfords’ fame, appearing in numerous media projects, as well as the Walt Disney movie “Iron Will.”
“We have friends all over the world,” Shilon said. “Sort of a family who raise Alaskan malamutes. You see each other and you gather together and you learn about each other’s dogs. . . When you are into it, it’s like any hobby. It’s really a lot of fun and a social aspect of your life.”
Although the Bedfords were both attracted to the Malamutes, it was Shilon who had wanted one since she was a young girl.
“I came from the Chicago area,” Shilon said. “I would walk to school every day and on my way there, I passed a house that had two malamutes. They would put their big furry feet up on the fence, lean over and I would hug and pet them. My family had a husky, but I always knew I wanted a malamute.”
David grew up in North Carolina.
The Bedfords, both horticulturists, met while they attended Wheaton College Science Station in South Dakota.
They married in 1974, and first lived in Rapid City, SD where they had been in the greenhouse industry. They went to graduate school in Colorado, and moved to Minnesota when David was offered a job at the University of Minnesota as its apple breeder.
“He is the man who developed Honeycrisp, Zestar!, and Minneska (marketed as SweeTango),” Shilon said.
Their home was in Watertown, on seven acres of land on Oak Lake.
“Most of it was in the lake and we had a couple of acres of apple trees,” Shilon said. “I had a greenhouse and we had “pick your own” strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries.”
They also had sheep.
“We were both animal people, and we liked the outdoors and we liked outdoor activities,” Shilon said.
With a place of their own, and an interest in sled dogs, they began their search for Shilon’s Alaskan malamute.
In doing their research, the Bedfords found that the malamute was the perfect dog for freight sledding, which they planned to do while camping in the Boundary Waters.
“We wanted to be able to sled with them because, living in Minnesota, we had the opportunity to use them in the winter,” Shilon said.
Because a team is usually made up of seven dogs, breeding them was their plan, and they found a good working stock in Winnipeg, Canada.
Besides using the dogs for recreation, the Bedfords enjoyed attending weight pulling events on the weekends, where dogs would pull heavy weights over short distances. Weight pulling was part of racing events which took place in Ely and Bemidji.
At the weight pulling events, the Bedford malamutes drew lots of attention.
“People were attracted to our dogs because they looked like real sled dogs as opposed to the smaller racing-style dogs,” Shilon said.
The interest in the malamutes also brought attention to the harnesses the Bedfords had made for their dogs after the couple discovered that there were only harnesses for the smaller racing dogs, and nothing for the larger dogs.
Shilon had worked with harness makers to design the right fit for their dogs. When people saw the Bedford harnesses, they wanted to know where they could get them.
“So we started thinking, ‘Gee, if we sold harnesses when we came to these events, we could help pay for our traveling,’ and that is what we started to do,” Shilon said. “We would bring some harnesses with us (that Shilon had designed and made) and set up a little booth on the back of our truck like you see at the fair.”
By 1982, the couple had chosen a name for their new business and kennel, calling it Black Ice. The name was used by the Eskimos to describe the color of the ice as it changes just before the lake thaws, when the ice is very dangerous, according to Shilon.
Also, since their first malamutes were black and white, the name suited the animals, too.
In 1986-87, with the help of Shilon’s artist friend, Black Ice produced its first pamphlet and catalog, which featured dogsledding equipment.
Shilon purchased an industrial sewing machine and began making other kinds of harnesses, and they offered many other supplies as well.
“In the early ‘90s, the sledding industry was really at its peak,” according to Shilon. And, although everything has its ups and downs, their business remained fairly stable.
“In the mid-90s we were still doing all of our advertising in magazines like Dog Fancy or Dog World and you hoped people just kind of found you,” Shilon said.
What really changed the way Black Ice did business was the Internet.
“The Internet just blew open the door,” according to Shilon.
“That was how we really got established.”
In addition to the Bedford business gaining exposure, the Bedford malamutes were also becoming well-known.
Training the 15 to 20 malamutes begins when the dogs are puppies. Shilon said they were at their best at about 4 or 5 years old.
When full grown, the dogs each weighed close to 100 pounds. Altogether, they would eat a couple tons of dog food a year.
The dogs were shown at national specialty shows which showcased the top working titled dogs in the country, and had won several times. People were on a waiting list for the puppies, sometimes for more than a year.
The Bedfords found themselves being asked to use their dogs for advertising, special events and in 1992, they were even asked to use their dogs in a Walt Disney movie.
The Black Ice malamutes were to play the villain team in the film “Iron Will.”
“David went through the audition process and he had to drive the team and they (the Disney people) were really impressed with how the team performed. So much so that they hired him for several days to stay and help them train the star team,” Shilon said.
As a bonus, David got to be a stand-in for the villain actor.
“That is my husband actually driving the sled in the movie,” Shilon said. “For the close-up, they would put the actor on the sled and pull it with a snowmobile so he wouldn’t fall off.”
Some other career highlights for the Black Ice malamutes were being part of several Super Bowl events, and helping promote the opening of the Mall of America by giving Snoopy a ride from the mall to a hotel in Minneapolis, driving down city streets in traffic.
With the business expanding, the dog kennel, and a new baby, Cianna, who was born in 1992, the Bedfords realized their Watertown farm was becoming too crowded.
In 1994, they moved to a home they built on a 48-acre corn field on Campbell Lake.
For a number of years before the birth of Cianna, Shilon had worked for Hennepin Technical College and taught greenhouse production, but decided it was time to concentrate on their daughter and the business.
In the lower level of their new home, an office was designed for Black Ice which included a sewing machine, computer, supplies, a packaging area, and a grooming room.
Today, Shilon spends many hours a week keeping up with Black Ice orders.
The malamute kennel is now down to one dog, Anja, who is 13 years old.
“When we got to a point, and some of it was due to my physical ability to take care of them, I had to decide if I had another litter of puppies, could I really care for them,” Shilon said. “You have to look at how old you are and how old you will be when the last dog dies.”
With fewer dogs, and a daughter who is attending St. Olaf College, Shilon has become an AKC licensed judge certified to judge eight breeds at junior showmanship events.
“That has taken me 15 years to achieve. Right now I am studying to add another 12 breeds to my repertoire. I will be taking an oral exam at the end of this month,” Shilon said.
As a national judge approved for judging malamutes, she has been invited to judge all around the world, including Italy, France, England, Belgium, and Australia.
Black Ice offers quality equipment. For more information on Black Ice, follow the link at www.herald-journal.com.
For placing an order, call (320) 485-4825 or e-mail at email@example.com.
“We don’t support online ordering because ordering a harness and getting a good fit is really about making sure somebody has measured their dog correctly,” Shilon said.
“And almost every person who calls me has a question and they almost always appreciate actually talking to a person.”