In Talkeetna, Alaska, a town of some 800 about 85 miles north of Anchorage, the men are men and the women are few and far between. So, 24 years ago, the bachelors had an idea: Why not auction themselves off and invite women to come up and bid? A few years later, they decided to have the women compete in a series of outdoor challenges. The result is the annual Wilderness Woman Contest and Bachelor Auction and Ball. On Dec. 4, PEOPLE sent contributor Strawberry Saroyan, 34—whose memoir Girl Walks into a Bar chronicles single life in the city—to try her luck.

What's a girl to do in a post-Sex and the City world? Without my favorite show to watch after splitting' with a classically urban male, I left L.A. for the mountains of our coldest state to compete in the Wilderness Woman Contest—and to bid on a (presumably) fur-and-plaid-clad Alaskan bachelor.

Our first task: Dash down Main Street in freezing temperatures, carrying two empty buckets, exchange them for pails filled with 10 gallons of water, and run back without spilling anything—or falling down. The good news: I'm pitted against competitor Mitzi Druss, a stand-up comic from L.A. In snowsuits and bunny boots, we're off—but Mitzi's in the lead. "I'm going to come in last," I think. "Dead last." But by the time we hit our halfway marks, I'm ahead. I stay focused: water, move, finish line. No other thoughts as I...win!

Since 1985, hundreds of other women have performed similar feats—flocking to this northern village from as far away as Japan and Switzerland. Townsfolk say the events are tongue-in-cheek, but the result has been one marriage and more than a few liaisons. "We've had plenty of those!" says DX Russell, 60, one of the organizers.

The auction is for a worthy cause—the proceeds go to local charities, including one that aids women and children in crisis. And the chance to land an authentic Alaskan mountain man is tempting. Ranging in age from 24 to 69, the 27 specimens of Talkeetna manhood up for auction this year run the gamut from urban dropouts to young sportsmen to grizzly-looking hunting guide Tim Buechle, 44, who wears hats made from animals he may have trapped himself. With that demographic in mind, Talkeetnans ask contestants to prove themselves tough enough for life off the grid. Its a chance for some to shine: As last year's first place winner, Heidi Weigner, 28, a Ph.D. student from Anchorage, puts it, her triumph was "kind of a Miss America moment."

Even before I suit up for battle, however, I find Alaskan romance easy to come by. My first night in town, I meet bachelor Travis Rannals, 28, a rafting guide and snowboard instructor. Within hours he takes me for a ride on a snow machine. "This must be what it's like to glide around the moon," I say as we cruise under a twinkling sky through snow as far as the eye can see. He laughs. "This is how I got to high school every day." Maybe so, but it blows this city girl away.

After my water-bucket heroics the next day, I bask in the knowledge that I may not be the worst contestant. I'm far from the best—there's Weigner; Gella Vandecaveye, an Olympic silver medalist in judo from Belgium; and local Hope Colitz, who says casually, "This is what I do every day." But I'm doing better than Mitzi—and that morning, Travis taught me to shoot a BB gun and cast a fishing line.

I start strong in the next challenge, which revolves around the care and feeding of an Alaskan man. Making a sandwich and opening a beer can for a burly fellow in a recliner, I have people complimenting my technique. But then, humiliation: I have to toss firewood into a sled, hop on the snow machine it's attached to, and drive it through the snow to a fire pit. By the time I finish, I'm thankful they don't read out my time.

When the final event starts, I'm wondering: Is my brain frozen? All I know is that in the next several minutes, I strap on snowshoes, hook a fake salmon, shoot BBs at balloons that represent local birds, crawl through an ice cave and blast a man in a moose costume with a paintball gun. Does one get extra points for insanity?

Before I can worry about my standing, however, I head off to the auction at Talkeetna's local VFW Post. More than a hundred women are chanting "Show us the meat!" before a single bachelor takes the stage. After Bill Krovchuk strips off his shirt to wild cheers, he pulls in $995. Mitzi snags pilot Russell Gillespie for $100. When Travis goes on the block, the emcee asks him to describe his appeal. "You're lookin' at it," he says.

I'm sold. After a bidding war, I snag him for $115—a steal. Then it's off to the ball, where at the stroke of 11, the Wilderness Woman winner is proclaimed. Heidi Weigner prevails for the second year in a row, but I'm given my own 6th place crown—made of silver plastic and decorated with dried moose droppings. Maybe my feet are just numb, but as I hit the dance floor with Travis, for a moment it feels like I'm walking on air. It's not a real love connection—though we have e-mailed since I've been home—but this much is true: When I tire of city life again, I know that way up north, I've got a friend.