Archive for Sunday, March 2, 2008

Muskrat fur flies at beauty pageant

March 2, 2008


— Contestant No. 1 sashayed down the catwalk, her hair bouncing in blonde curls, and smiled a radiant beauty-queen smile. She picked up a furry dead rodent about the size of a football.

Then she took out a very sharp four-inch blade and stuck the point in just above the animal's tail.

"Then," she said, narrating the incision as sweetly as a Miss America contestant talking about world peace, "you're going to want to take your knife ... "

This was the "talent" portion of the 2008 Miss Outdoors pageant, part of an improbable Eastern Shore festival that combines the worlds of beauty contests and competitive muskrat skinning.

For years here, young women have paraded in glittery evening gowns, and then - on the same stage - skinners in camouflage hats have separated small animals from their pelts.

This year, two girls chose to do both.

Their story played out less than 60 miles from Washington, in a place where time is slowly eroding a culture built around the Chesapeake Bay's boot-sucking marshes. These teenagers were afraid that, without their participation, both the pageant and the skinning races might decline even further.

So they sought to take on a hybrid role, one foot in their world and one in their grandparents'. In one weekend, they would be both modern princesses and old-time, blood-covered 'rat-skinners.

" ... You want to take your knuckles," 17-year-old Samantha Phillips, Contestant No. 1, was saying. One of the pageant judges squinched up her face in shock. "And separate the meat from the hide, just like this."

"Oh my God!" a boy in the audience yelled, at the sight of a woman in perfect makeup with her hand inside a muskrat.

Then, from another part of the crowd: an older woman's voice: "She's good."

The pageant and the skinning contest were part of the 63rd annual National Outdoor Show, held last month in the town of Golden Hill. To get there, drivers turn off the highway to Ocean City and wind more than 15 miles through marshes to a rural crossroads. There is little evidence of town or hill.

"This is really the end of the world, back up five feet," one contestant's mother said.

The festival began with the muskrats - bucktoothed marsh critters whose pelts are sold to the fur trade. Over the decades, friendly rivalries among local skinners gave birth to the World Championship Muskrat Skinning Contest, which now draws crowds of more than 1,000.

Its rules are simple: "Fastest time, clean 'rat," locals say, meaning that the hides can't be nicked or torn as they're removed. The pelts are usually taken home and sold by the skinners; the carcasses are sometimes stewed with liberal amounts of sage and eaten. Scientists do not believe the event presents a threat to the local muskrat population.

For 54 years, the skinning contest has also been accompanied by a beauty contest.

No one here thinks that's odd.

"It's not like, 'Oh my God, it's a beauty pageant!' 'Oh my God, they're skinning muskrats!' " said Tiffany Brittingham, 22, a sixth-grade science teacher. "It's just a norm."


Kookamooka 10 years, 2 months ago

I so wish there were a picture to accompany this story. DANG!

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