GOLDEN HILL, MD. — How do you skin a muskrat? Let's ask an expert.
Here's Dakota Abbott, 17, the only woman to win a muskrat-skinning contest and the Miss Outdoors pageant. Her father and uncle, both former muskrat-skinning champs, taught her to skin her first muskrat when she was 14.
"The first cut is crucial -- you have to pinch the fur at the hind legs and cut straight into that meaty area there. You slice down and out real quick and just push your rat inside out," Dakota was saying Friday night as she watched three male cousins carve dead muskrats with blood-smeared hands.
Dakota wore a silver crown and a sequined evening gown, for she was moments away from surrendering her Miss Outdoors 2008 title to the new queen crowned at Friday night's pageant. On Saturday night, Dakota wore jeans and a T-shirt to slice up two furry muskrats with a Queen Cutlery No. 11 folding knife, plunging her manicured fingers into the creatures' glistening carcasses.
Her swift but messy skinning won the women's junior championship trophy, a $100 check and a set of muskrat traps -- although Dakota was the category's only contestant. She finished off her final muskrat with a flourish, raising her blood-tinged knife in triumph.
"You want a real sharp knife and a good grip," Dakota said, describing her technique.
Early Sunday morning, an eastern shore waterman named Ronnie Robbins skinned five brown muskrats with a paring knife to take first prize in the men's muskrat-skinning championship.
"No secret technique," Robbins, 50, said as he hoisted his trophy. "I just let those other boys mess up."
Robbins' rousing win in 2 minutes, 14.25 seconds -- edging out four of Dakota's cousins and uncles -- was the climax of the 64th Annual National Outdoor Show. There were muskrat blood and viscera on the floor and wild hoots and whistles from hundreds of spectators as skinners in the men's, women's and beginner's contests claimed their trophies.
The show celebrates an enduring way of life in rural Dorchester County. In this low, wet corner of Maryland's eastern shore, at the remote edge of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, the main pursuits are hunting, fishing, crabbing -- and trapping, skinning and selling muskrats.
"People have been trapping and skinning muskrats forever around here," said Buddy Oberender, one of the show's chairmen, who stopped skinning muskrats when he realized he was allergic to their fur. "They say the first settlers learned it from the Indians."
Oberender, like many locals, calls himself a "waterman." He's a commercial fisherman -- menhaden, bass, flounder, croaker, catfish -- but he's devoted to muskrats. He beamed as his 11-year-old son, Ryan, won the male beginner's skinning title.
Few people here make a living trapping and selling muskrats anymore. It's mostly done on the side, what with the price of muskrat meat at $2.50 to $5 an animal -- down from $10 to $11 a quarter-century ago. Muskrat pelts, 90% of which are exported to make coats and hats, are down to $2 to $4 each, from $7 to $9 20 years ago.
Muskrat meat is a staple at volunteer fire hall fundraisers and backyard feasts here. (Tastes like chicken!) At the show's muskrat-cooking contest Saturday, the winners were muskrat salsa with cheese and muskrat with onions. An also-ran: muskrat dumplings.
"Muskrat is a real delicacy," said Morgan Bennett, who judged the skinning competition and won the raccoon-skinning title. He thinks muskrat tastes more like rabbit, and prefers his muskrats baked.
The National Outdoor Show, first held in 1938, is staged inside a steamy high school gym. (Who knew the outdoor show was held indoors?) In tribute to the humble muskrat, the event features muskrat T-shirts and a muskrat race. (No, not by the muskrats -- children do the running, fetching a dead muskrat from a nest and scampering to the finish line.)
In 2003, Tiffany Brittingham became the first Miss Outdoors contestant to skin a muskrat in makeup and earrings, paving the way for others. Last year, a contestant skinned a muskrat in the talent competition. She lost to Dakota.
In this year's pageant, contestant Lauren Edwards dunked a large chicken in scalding water and plucked it with her bare hands. She lost the pageant and a $1,500 college scholarship, alas, to a radiant young lady named Abbigail Tyler, who sang, and wore, "Red High Heels."
For the uninitiated, a muskrat is, if not exactly a rat, at least a rat cousin. Called a "rat" around here and formally known as Ondatra zibethica, the muskrat is a semi-aquatic rodent, aka water rat.
Muskrats are brown, gray or black, about a foot long, with dense waterproof fur, short legs and big feet. They love lakes, swamps and marshes, which makes the soggy eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay a sort of muskrat Shangri-La. They are prolific breeders and eaters, gulping down a third of their body weight a day in vegetation and grains.