• Thu. Jun 23rd, 2022

At the 18th annual Queen of the Beavers competition in Durham, camp reigns supreme

ByDebra J. Aguilar

Jun 15, 2022

At Camp Bushy Valley, the word “camp” is an understatement.

A Victorian beaver – in a red burlesque skirt under a black dress, sequined sailor cap, steampunk goggles and sunflower umbrella – parades with a parade. Eliza DuBose, a fishtail beaver in seaweed beads, flamingo sunglasses and an aquamarine octopus hat, prances around the campground. Another beaver is wearing rainbow sunglasses, a green floral fedora and a butterfly shirt. The decor looks like a scene from Wes Anderson Moonrise Kingdom.

It’s June 4 and the Beaver Queen Pageant, a fundraiser for the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, celebrates its 18th anniversary. Hundreds of neighbors, volunteers and visitors gather for an afternoon on the prairie in Duke Park to celebrate the contest’s first year in person since 2019. It’s a big village fete with parades, dancing , environmental activism and a real contest crowning the newest Beaver Queen.

Long before the queen is chosen, bubbles blow from an entrance tent and funk music plays from speakers as the crowd heads into an amphitheater. Food trucks quickly line Acadia Street next to the park. The line for a Durham staple, LocoPops, stretches at least 20 feet.

In the early afternoon, entourages representing contestants walk around asking participants to “bribe” the judges so that their beaver can win. Votes are $5 each. Charlee Halpheen and Susan Bowker wear a Tinder-themed photo booth asking people to vote for Tinder Beaver. Others simply encourage onlookers to come to the voting tent, where those who vote at least 20 times can choose to keep a homemade beaver tail.

Mike Shiflett, a Durham resident since 1984, talks to neighbors from a tent labeled ‘Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association’. Dressed in a long-sleeved red shirt with the tag “steward,” the white-haired retired business owner hands out pamphlets offering information about Ellerbe Creek. He explains how the competition came about.

“They were widening [I-85], and one of the things they were trying to do is alleviate the flooding. And who is causing the floods? Beavers,” says Shiflett, a longtime volunteer with the association. “So this neighborhood, Duke Park, found out that the North Carolina Department of Transportation was going to trap beavers. And when you trap beavers, you end up killing them.

Residents were outraged, he recalls. Nearby, an old friend, Barry Ragin, president of the Duke Park Neighborhood Association at the time, intervenes.

“We found out the state had a beaver management program,” Ragin recalls. “We got county commissioners to vote to join the beaver management program. The beavers were saved.

“They ended up moving behind Compare Foods, the mall just across the street from [I-85],” he said. “So there’s a huge beaver lodge there. One of the biggest on the East Coast.

A year after saving the beavers, the neighborhood hosted its first beaver queen contest at the meadow. However, it wasn’t until its second year that the Beaver Queen Pageant became a fundraiser.

“There was a 14-year-old who competed,” Ragin says. “Her father, the late Bill Anderson…went to a number of judges and said, ‘Here’s $1 – vote for my daughter to be queen.

“And at the end of the day, we had something like $10 or $15. And we didn’t know what to do with it. So we donated it to the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association. And then the next year, we decided to try fundraising, and we raised almost $100. And then the third…raised closer to $1,000. And now I understand that’s closer to $30,000 a year.

Shifflet and Ragin aren’t the only longtime contest supporters in attendance. Bill Anderson’s daughter, Jill Anderson, is one of the main organizers of this year’s contest, along with Greg Palmer. The very first Beaver Queen, Beverly Woody, real name Richard Mullinax, is also present, wearing a blouse and a tag bearing the name OGBQ (Original Gangster Beaver Queen). The former Beaver Queen wanders around the campsite, offering male and female condoms and lube to hundreds of people watching.

“Here’s some lubrication,” says Mullinax, who now lives in California. “Make sure and keep wetlands moist, and make sure and protect wetlands. You know we want to share – we also want to make sure we protect wetlands for future use.

In the foreground, the show begins as the Bulltown Strutters lead a parade, descending to the stage from a hill. People in the crowd dance with the train as the master of ceremonies walks towards the microphone. He wears a 1960s scout councilor uniform with a homemade beaver tail. Soon, he introduces another emcee who calls himself Dante.

Before the contest proper can begin, Dante leads the crowd in “The Blessing of the Kits”. He calls on all families with children to come on stage. He then leads the children in prayer focused on the environment.

“At Mother Nature, we pray for the planet,” the blessing begins. “Breath of life, from which all order was created. All creation bears witness to you. Teach us to respect all creatures and all men and increase our gratitude for your loving providence.

“Put a Little Love in Your Heart” by Jackie DeShannon plays as the crowd dances. Next, the six judges – each representing a brewery sponsor – come out dressed as historical figures and pop culture figures, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Tooth Beaver Ginsburg) and Julius Caesar (Chewlius Caesar). Each judge indicates what they are looking for in Beaver Queen.

Finally, it’s time to meet the competitors: Satine Bieber, Beavabundancer, Tinder Beaver, Pawryshnikov Gnawjinski (aka Ballet Beaver) and Velor Gnawsett Peltenham Riverdancer West (aka Velo, the cycling beaver).

Next comes the talent segment. A competitor prepares a smoothie using a bicycle. Another Janelle Monae “Pynk” performer. Tinder Beaver sings a song full of puns about dating apps. Another beaver dances while spraying perfume. Ballet Beaver dancing on Swan Lake (sure). The judges deliberate and count the votes.

At the end, each beaver receives a title. Satine Bieber has the best tail and the best costumes, and Pawryshnikov Gnawjinski is the best talent. Beavabundancer is the smartest beaver, Tinder Beaver is Miss Hygeniality and Velor Gnawsett Peltenham Riverdancer West has the best stage presence.

A prima donna ready to find a handsome beaver to settle down with wins the biggest prize: Tinder Beaver, with a social score of 533 and $2,590 raised, is voted queen.

She receives her crown – a pink bob with pointed felt edges, sequins and hand-sewn animals. Next, ABBA’s song “Dancing Queen” plays. Instead of “digging the dancing queen”, some organizers sing “digging the beaver queen”.

For the children in the audience, the victory came out of a fairy tale. They run to Tinder Beaver to kiss and congratulate her. She hugs them and the other contestants, smiling in surprise and shock.

“I was so out of breath because my heart was beating millions of miles per minute,” says Tinder Beaver, real name Alisa Hassinger. The first time she performed or practiced her talent was during the show, she explains.

“It was very surprising, but it was so much fun,” she exclaims.

Then she returns to the crowd to dance again.

This story was produced through a partnership between the INDIA and 9th Street Newspaperwhich is published by journalism students at Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy.

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