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Fur Flies at Beauty Pageant (But It's Not What You Think)

In Eastern Shore's Muskrat Country, Contestants Keep Two Traditions Alive

Two girls from Dorchester County, Md. participate in a beauty pageant and muskrat skinning competition during the 63rd Annual National Outdoor Show in Golden Hill, Md.
Golden Hill
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 1, 2008; Page A01

GOLDEN HILL, Md. -- 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.

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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 weekend 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.

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