The marsh stretches away beyond clumps of trees as the sun, hidden for days behind dull layers of cloud and continuous rain, slides down behind the bay. Water runs off the eaves of the big shed, rattling on the cement slab in front of the open garage door, drowning the sound of footsteps on the gravel driveway.

Drifter, a big black Labrador, romps through the wet grass, dancing around his master, Ted Abbott, who carries clumps of dead muskrats by their tails into the shed and drops them on a rough plywood table.

Abbott turns on a single overhead light bulb which throws a false warm glow on the brown and black muskrats. Drifter sticks his nose in the pile.

Abbott wets one of his skinning knives on the palm of his hand and picks out a "good' rat."

"You should have brought them inside," says Bunny, Abbott's wife, from the doorway. "These boys aren't hardened to the weather like us."

"I'm all set up here," Abbott explains. "We'll only be a minute. I'm going to fix up a couple of good rats so these boys can cook 'em and see how good they taste. You fix them a lot like a good chicken stew. But they're better."

Drifter intrudes again, thrusting his balck muzzle into the muskrat's belly.

Abbott nudges the dog away. "No nutes here, boy. Just 'rats. No nutes today."

Drifter is famous in Dorchester County, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, for his love of nutria, the beaver-sized South American rodent which was accidently released in Lousisiana in the 1930s and has spread widely in this country. In the Blackwater Game Refuge, nutria have moved in and become a threat to the ecosystem.

Drifter killed 600 nutria in Blackwater during the big freeze two years ago. The hides were worth $4.50 each. Since then Abbott has turned down many offers for the dog.

Abbott has been kneading the dead muskrat, as a potter might work a lump of clay, and he is ready to begin.

Using a skinning method he developed for speed, the trapper needs only three cuts of his knife for the process -- one for the hind legs which opens the hide like the bottom of a sweater, one for the ears and one for the eyes. In a few seconds the fur is free of the animal, twisted off and inside-out.

Six times Abbott was the world champion muskrat skinner at the Cambridge, Md., Outdoor Show where his grandfather, George North, was the first world champion.

"Boys from Lousiana and New Jersey have come to see how we do it," he says.

Abbott withdrew from competition two years ago. He's 38 and his left hand was burned with frostbite while trapping. No one else has beat his old time of five 'rats in 58 seconds.

Trapping animals for their fur is a grim business. Grim not only because of the long succession of small dead bodies and the bloody process of separating hide from body, but grim because of the hardships of moving through wetlands and water in the dead of winter, where frostbite and hypothermia can strike all but the most wary.

Trapping is a full-time occupation during the season on the Eastern Shore. The search, in both numbers and dollars, is for muskrat.

The muskrat's niche in life seems to be that of an ecological hamburger -- fast food in the wild food chain. Hawks, eagles, foxes, weasels, even owls, snakes and turtles are predators of the furry animal with the tail that looks as if it had been run over while the animal was asleep on its side. Bout many of the muskrat's natural predators have been wiped out or diminished.

The muskrat is one of the few animals which can be taken without limit in Maryland, and the hides provide a warm financial return for the trouble.

"You earn every penny of it," Abbott says. "Snow blowing in your face. You put your hand in over your glove and the water comes in. You put your foot in over the boot and it's worse."

Trapping is an assumed and integral factor of Abbott's existence, as ordinary as the wide stretches of marsh in Dorchester County where he has lived all his life. He has trapped for most of his 38 years, as have his people for generations.His great-grandfather, Karl Abbott, a Nanticoke Indian, harvested food and fur from the marsh.

During the season Abbott drops his home improvement business and spends the coldest part of the winter in the marsh -- out of his house by 7 a.m., not back until 6, seven days a week.

"You'll do things you wouldn't do if somebody was trying to pay you for it," he says. "If a man told me he'd pay me $50 to carry a load of traps back five miles in the marsh, I'd tell him he was crazy...

"But I do it for myself, and I don't even think about it."

Abbott's love of trapping is partly pride of expertise. His knowledge of the marsh is detailed. At one time or another he has trapped most of the marshland in the county. He can watch the development and distribution of the muskrat oppulation during the year and pick all their burrows and urns out of the maze of creeks and marsh grass.

Every season he takes his limit of four otter, an animal some trappers spend a lifetime trying to cathc. He captures 25 to 40 raccoon a year and nearly 1,000 muskrats.

Abbott is stocky, so heavy with chest and muscle that at first sight he seems shorter than his medium height. His hands are broad and powerful. His face is smooth: the winds that prowl the marsh have been somehow kind to his youthful cheeks. But his eyes are a startling clear blue, as deep as the sky over the bay early on a cloudless day, ageless and knowing.

Abbott has been trapping for nearly as long as he can remember. When he was in the second or third grade, he says, his father gave him a couple of traps and, "I put them in the ditch and caught what came along."

Trapping is an accepted business on the Eastern Shore, though it's often dependent on the going price of furs.

"When they were only paing $1.25 for a muskrat hide, there were only about three of us around here who were trapping seriously. But when they got to about $3 or $4, everybody was a trapper."

This year Abbott has cut back on the amount of land he traps. He'll only use a little over 2,000 acres of marsh, running a trap line of more than 12 miles, half of which will require a boat to service. He sets between 400 and 500 traps in water for muskrat and some for otter and raccoon.

Last year the public and private tracts Abbott leased cost $3,000. He "went in the hole," he says. This year he is trapping only on private land and paying $1,000 to do it, Abbott hopes to come close to last year's catch of 1,000 muskrat hides with about half as much marsh leased.

"If I ever become a millionaire, which I doubt I will," he says, "I'd still trap some. I couldn't do without it."

Abbott keeps his furs until the price is right and then sells to one of the fur buyers who come every year. But most of the trappers in Dorchester County don't have the freezers Abbott has to store their catch, or they need the money moare immediately. They sell to local fur buyers, often bringing in their catch every day.

Thirty or so miles north of Abbott's home, on U.S. 50 outside Cambridge, is a modest building behind a gravel parking lot. Harold Olsen is proprietor of the sporting goods, antique and fur-buying business inside.

Rifles and shotguns hang on the paneled walls and fill showcases. A large folding table fills the rear wall facing the front door and several hooks protude from the ceiling over it. Bodies of raccoon and opossom are heaped on the table; fresh muskrat hides hang from the hooks.

Fur trading is a chancy business, says Olsen, a reserved, middle-aged man. "You need a fair amount of skill to grade the fur."

The most difficult part is staying ahead of the market. Fashion, the beginning and end of the fur business, changes quickly. And supply can suddenly overwhelm demand in one sector of the market.

Otter, one of the finest and most durable of furs, is not in demand and will only bring a trapper about $25 for a good pelt. Beaver is no better. The raccoon is coming back as a "fun fur" and now brings about $25 a pelt.

In Japan fox fur stoles came back into fashion two years ago, and the trapper's price for a fox has gone up to $50. Olsen will buy all he can get -- 500 to 600 a year.

For the time being the muskrat is ascendent, and its hide, depending on color and size (bigger and blacker are better), will be worth $5 to $7 this year. The 'rats often end up in a shop in Germany, cured, plucked, dressed and sewn together with 60 of their fellows in a coat worth $4,000.

Last year Olsen bought and sold 80,000 muskrats, all of them sent to Europe, he says.

Once trapping was simply up to the individual, a catch-as-catch-can operation and the only restrictions on a trapper his own.

These days the "global village" grasps all in its net. As pavement and subdivision extend, each wild place and wild thing becomes more important. The old virtues fade, like tracks in the mud under an incoming tide.

"Wearing fur is objectionable and disgusting." says John Grandy from his Washington office. He is executive vice president of the Defenders of Wildlife. "It's something that tends to glorify some really cruel things that happen to animals...

"The current fashion idea of 'fun furs is horrible. There's nothing fun about it."

With a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology, Grandy has deep reservations about trapping, but there are situations, he says, where the ecology has been disrupted and some animals, such as the muskrat and the nutria, may dominate a piece of land to the detriment of all species.

The suffering is what really gets to him. "If it has to go, it should be killed quickly, not allowed to suffer long hours in a trap."

Grandy does not condemn the type of trap Abbott uses for muskrat, the Conibear, which kills instantly. But he has a repugnance, a distaste, for it. What he abhors most are the older, more traditional foot or leg trap.

"The leg trap is an inherently cruel device with no place in this society," says Grandy. The animal is caught, the leg broken or crushed and circulation confounded. Often the animal will twist or chew off its captured limb and hobble away a cripple.

Grandy is more in favor of trapping an animal with a fairly recent European invention, the Aldrich foot snare. That device traps with a padded wire loop and allows an unwanted animal to be released unharmed.

"People don't realize that most of the fur taken in this country is exported," says Grandy. "We have never built up a real fur industry. It's gone to Europe from the first. The fashion over there feeds on our animals."

Many area trappers find Grandy's position threatening. They are wary of publicity and few will allow their names to be identified with trapping. That bothers Grandy.

"The society is changing its mind about trapping," he says. "Trapping... was once valued by our society. Now we look at it another way, but it's hard on those who still feel the same way about trapping as they did a hundred years ago."

Grandy, his association and many others are working to limit trapping. In Maryland traps must be tended every 24 hours, 36 hours in tidal marshes. Grandy wants leg hold traps to be banned outright.

Ted Abbott is at rest in his living room, a beer on the table beside him, his pet albino ferret, Jezebel, wiggling softly in his hands and chattering on his knee.He finds the antitrapper movement of little interest.

"I know what I've seen," he says. The fecund marsh is there, the 'rats and all the other living things, the mud, the water and the wind and his place in it, watching the cycles his great-grandfather saw.

"They have their ideas," he says."They could even be right."

It is almost shocking Abbott could say that. But he is cetain of his own world. He is as much a part of the marsh as the muskrats, as those who left the arrowheads and artifacts he so delightedly collects from the shores. He himself is as endangered a breed as the eagles that often wheel above him as he follows his trap line.