I'm not sure why the film crew picked me out of the crowd. It could have been because I was the first contestant to sign up, walking into the dim bar at 11 a.m. sharp and putting down my $5, signing my life away in a waiver form and strapping on bib No. 27. Or it could have been because I was visibly sober, unlike some of the other women who signed up after me.
Whatever the reason, they pulled me aside as I waited at the start line, mic'd me up and pointed their camera, and asked me who I was, where I was from, what I was doing there. I was from Canada, I told them, from the Yukon Territory. I had driven 14 hours to be here, in Talkeetna, Alaska, to compete.
We would try to prove, in a (mostly) ironic competition, that we would be worthy wives for the Alaskan bachelors.
As the camera rolled, they asked me to offer some sort of final statement for my fellow contestants, a declaration of war or defiance. I thought for a second, then uttered the unofficial battle cry of reality television: "I'm not here to make friends."
I unclipped their microphone and walked back to my place at the start line. The film crew, from the Travel Channel, drifted away. Three other women joined me at the line: two young local women in fur hats, elaborate masks and matching black-and-red patterned tights, and my friend Carmen, who'd made the trip with me, wearing a plastic dollar-store tiara that matched my own. The four of us made up the first heat. Over the next few hours, we — along with 41 others — would vie for the title of Alaska Wilderness Woman 2013. We would haul water, then saw and carry wood. We would shoot targets and drive snowmachines. We would try to prove, in a (mostly) ironic competition, that we would be worthy wives for the Alaskan bachelors who'd organized the event. The winner, we'd been promised, would be "worshipped" by those bachelors for the year.
I wondered, as I waited for my heat to begin, whether the whole thing might be better suited to a gender studies dissertation than to a sports story. But it was too late now. A crowd of spectators had gathered along Talkeetna's snowy main drag. Men placed bets on the probable winners. Women in colorful wigs and numbered bibs like mine drank from pocket flasks, and children and dogs roamed freely. A husky chased after a man in a moose costume, and the emcee, Todd, came over to get us lined up and ready. It was time to show the bachelors of Talkeetna what I was made of.
Every year, the Talkeetna Bachelor Society hosts an auction to raise money for Alaskan women and children in crisis. The goods that they auction off? Themselves. For 33 years, women — mainly from the nearby city of Anchorage, home to half the state's population — have traveled to this small town of almost 1,000 just south of Denali National Park to spend their tax-deductible dollars on a date with one of Talkeetna's most eligible single men. It's a humorous fundraiser for a serious cause — a portion of the money raised goes to a fund specifically aimed at getting abused women out of Alaska's remote, fly-in communities, places that they might otherwise be literally unable to escape. And it's the type of event that would only succeed, to the scale it has, in a place like Alaska.
There's a saying among Alaskan women: "The odds are good, but the goods are odd."
There's a saying among Alaskan women: "The odds are good, but the goods are odd." It's a half-joking nod to the idea that, while there's no shortage of men in Alaska, dating on the last frontier can be a little bit, well, unusual. Hence, the creation of reality television shows like TLC's Alaskan Women Looking for Love. Hence, the annual bachelor auction — which to date has, somewhat incredibly, actually resulted in a handful of marriages.
Twenty years ago, however, the Bachelor Society decided the weekend was lacking something. Women were coming up from Anchorage on Friday night, enjoying a meet-and-greet with the bachelors, then waiting around all day until Saturday night's event to place their bids at the auction. The empty afternoon needed filling. And so the Alaska Wilderness Woman Contest was born.
Some of the women in the crowd around me had been coming back for years, either to compete, or to bid, or both. I met one woman who'd flown in from Chicago three years running to purchase her favorite bachelor; another woman came all the way from California. Before the heats began I'd met Crystal, a five-time competitor who'd hoped to enter for a sixth time this year. But she'd gotten married since the 2012 contest, and when she went to sign up the volunteers spotted her ring, and denied her entry. Only single women — or married women with the foresight to remove their rings and the poker face to tell a lie — would be competing for the title.
At the start line, each of us was issued two empty five-gallon plastic buckets. Our first task went like this: We would run about a hundred yards down Main Street carrying the empty buckets, exchange them for full ones at the far line, then hustle back carrying 10 gallons of water. The event was meant to simulate that most cumbersome — and archaic — ritual of backcountry cabin living: fetching water from the creek. We had to complete the task with as little spillage as possible: Every inch spilled from our buckets meant a 10-second time penalty. The water round would separate the true wilderness women from the urbanite poseurs: Out of the field of 45, only the top-five times would advance.
In past years, temperatures had plunged as low as minus-30, and the spilled water had turned the course to ice in moments. Spectacular wipeouts had been commonplace. Today, with the air hovering around freezing, the slushy street seemed perilous, but manageably so. I bobbed on the balls of my feet at the line, feeling the same ripples of nervous energy and excitement I'd always had before the opening kick when I played rugby. Carmen stood on my left, with the two local girls — "We're representing the Denali dames," they told me — on my right. My two buckets sat on the snow in front of me.
Todd was on the mic, counting down the seconds. "3 ... 2 ... 1 ... Go!" We were off. I reached down, seized my buckets and started running, snowpants swishing. My winter boots seemed steady enough on the icy street, so I stretched out and hit a full sprint in a few strides. I passed Carmen early on, and soon I was out in front, the far line coming closer and closer, the bachelors waiting to make the hand-off. I must have been three-quarters of the way there when something flickered in my peripheral vision, and one of the Denali dames flew by me on my right, gaining a few steps on me before skidding to a stop at the line and tossing her empty buckets down. I did the same moments later, then grabbed the new set of plastic handles, turning and hoisting them into the air. I started a fast shuffle back down the course, trying to keep my shoulders squared and my upper body steady, trotting through the snow and slush as smoothly as I could. The crowd cheered us on, the water sloshed in our buckets, and for a little while, it seemed like I might be gaining on Denali. But my arms and shoulders tired fast, my lungs burned from the sprint, and soon it was all I could do to maintain my speed. I was out of gas.
The Denali dame crossed the finish line maybe 15 yards ahead of me, and Carmen and dame No. 2 came across together a short stretch behind me. I coughed in the cold air and waited while the officials assessed my buckets — I was spillage-free, but so was the first-place finisher. Unless our heat was an exceptionally fast one, I didn't have much shot at moving on. Still gulping air, I moved out of the way to let the next batch of contestants line up.
The remaining heats went by fast. Soon after our attempt, Todd announced the presence of the previous year's winner, Khalial, a lean, serious brunette. She caught the crowd's attention when she stepped up to the line with her game face on; she didn't showboat or play to the onlookers, just stayed focused and won her heat easily. Another woman showed up wearing nothing but shorts, a sports bra, and sneakers — as she waited for her start, she did pushups in the snow while the crowd roared its approval. ("You've pretty much got to bet on her," a group of gamblers next to me agreed.) She won her heat, too. And in the fourth heat, one woman competed wearing a brown spandex beaver costume. "Look at that beaver go!" an older man standing in the bed of a parked pickup hollered as she ran by.
"She ate shit last year," emcee Todd announced into the microphone as he introduced one returning contestant. The spectators laughed. But to their disappointment, this year, nobody did the same — the water round wrapped up without a single wipeout.
We all milled around in the street as the scores from the first round were tabulated. In the crowd, I met Margaret, the 2009 champion. "That's the number I wore when I won," she said, glancing at my No. 27 bib. Margaret had never attempted to defend her title, she told me. She'd met a bachelor at the after-party, and had married him within the year, rendering herself ineligible. For a couple of years, though, she'd held the all-time record for the fastest water round.
Around us, bachelors cleared the course and stoked the bonfire burning in the center of the action, and got things set for the next round, which would require contestants to complete a sequence of domestic tasks in the fastest possible time. An old recliner was dragged out into the street, and after ushering away a local drunk who wanted the seat, one of the bachelors, James, made himself comfortable. In this round, contestants would make a sandwich using a mandatory set of ingredients, crack open a beer, and bring both to James in his chair. But, as the official contest rules noted, there was "no designated format for ‘delivery' to the bachelor." Instead, they stipulated only that "the beer and all parts of the sandwich must arrive in the same general area at roughly the same time with a reasonable degree of accuracy." Someone offered James a large garbage bag to transform into a poncho, but he declined. Hecklers in the crowd lauded his bravery, but suggested he'd regret it.
Following the sandwich delivery, the contestants would next saw through a log by hand, load a sled connected to a snowmachine with wood, drive the snowmachine around a large loop, and then unload the wood from the sled.
The bachelors went to their stations, and the crowd gathered around an open area centered on the recliner. Todd reappeared: It was time to announce the finalists.
The first woman through to the next round was Nicki, a tall, short-haired brunette with a runner's body — I'd seen her win her heat during the first round. Then Kathy, who wore a white fur headband and seemed a little crowd-shy, and Stephanie, the contestant who'd stripped down to bra and shorts. Kelly, the fourth finalist, was a cheerful, high-energy, allegedly intoxicated blonde who wore leopard-print arm warmers and colorful outer space-themed leggings. Todd immediately dubbed her "Spacepants." The last of the five finalists was Khalial, the returning champion, back to defend her title.
"We don't see enough girls in shorts riding snowmachines around here, guys, that's for sure."
Nicki was the first to step up to the start line. She sprinted to a table set up in front of the general store, threw together cold cuts, mustard and bread, and cracked a can of beer, then ran toward the wood-sawing station at full speed, hurling beer and sandwich at bachelor James on her way by; both of them exploded on his chest as the crowd cheered. She sawed through her log in good time, loaded her sled and was off. But as she piloted her snowmachine around the loop packed into the snow, some of the wood slid off the sled. She had to leave the machine idling while she ran back to collect it, costing precious seconds.
Stephanie, the crowd favorite, was up next, removing her warm layers to tackle the round in shorts and sports bra again. "We don't see enough girls in shorts riding snowmachines around here, guys, that's for sure," Todd observed as she drove off with her sled loaded. But when she, too, lost a log from her sled and stopped to retrieve it, the snowmachine died. A handful of bachelors converged, trying and failing to restart the machine while the crowd murmured in confusion and concern. This being small-town Alaska in December, a replacement was soon found nearby. Todd announced that Stephanie would be allowed a redo.
Defending champ Khalial delivered her sandwich with enough violence to splatter mustard across James' chest and neck. The audience hooted its pleasure. She fought to cut through her log, kicking at it when the saw's teeth kept getting snagged midway through. "I hate that log!" Someone, presumably a supporter, yelled from the crowd. Finally, Khalial sat down hard on the wood, snapping it in two.
Kathy struggled with the sawing, too, but handled her snowmachine without any log trouble. Kelly, the last to compete, was the only one who handed her sandwich gently to James — and then up-ended her beer can and poured it down his face and throat.
As the second round drew to a close, the bachelors moved onto the course to clean up and prepare for the next event. The dogs of Talkeetna followed them, removing the remnants of the contestants' sandwiches from the mustard-smeared snow.
The day's light was already dimming as the third round got going — in December, in the shadow of Denali, sunset arrives by mid-afternoon. As the bonfire flickered and the crowd shuffled their feet to ward off the cold, emcee Todd explained the next set of tasks.
First, the finalists would have to land a "salmon" — using a fishing rod baited with a Velcro-covered tennis ball, they'd cast for one of two fish-shaped blocks of wood, also Velcro-covered, lying in the street. Once they'd reeled in their fish, they'd load it into a backpack, strap on snowshoes, and run along the snowmachine course from round two until they reached a tree covered in inflated balloons. There, they'd be handed an Airsoft gun and asked to shoot a balloon "ptarmigan." Once they'd bagged a bird, they'd run, still in snowshoes, and gun in hand, further along the circular course, until confronted by a "moose" — the man in a moose costume who'd been on the scene all day. After shooting the moose, they'd run to the finish line, kiss a waiting bachelor, and be home free.
"The fishing is sort of the make-or-break event," Margaret, the 2009 champ, had told me. A few bad casts could strand a competitor at the salmon station for irreplaceable minutes. The rest was a matter of staying on your feet and making decent time in the cumbersome, old-fashioned snowshoes provided by the bachelors.
Once again, Nicki was up first. She snagged a salmon on her second cast, and completed the rest of the course flawlessly. Stephanie, back in her skivvies again, tried next, and then Khalial, who caught her fish on the first try. "She knows how to land a frickin' salmon!" someone yelled. Kathy and Kelly Spacepants followed without a hitch, and when it was all over, it was impossible to say who might be the winner. As far as I could tell, the real difference-maker had been the log sawing in round two. Stephanie had been quickest on that, I figured, but it was tough to tell for sure. There had been no disasters, and no clear leaders. Twilight was settling over Talkeetna's main drag now. We would have to wait until that night's bachelor auction, still a couple of hours away, to find out who had taken the title.
As the crowd drifted away, Carmen and I headed to a local pizza place to grab some dinner. Khalial was already there, and after she'd finished eating, she slid into our booth to answer my questions. She was 29, she told me, and like nearly every contestant, she lived in Anchorage — she'd made the 100-mile drive up to Talkeetna for the weekend. Last year, she'd been a first-time competitor with no expectations; she'd tagged along with a group of law clerks, and had been surprised to win the whole thing. This year, she said, "I just came back to have fun. I think both skill and luck are involved [in winning], so I had to manage my expectations." But, she added, as the defending champion she had at least wanted to make it past the water round.
"The key strategy, if you really want to win a bachelor, is to pool your money."
Before she left, she offered us a piece of sage advice for the second contest of the day, the bachelor auction. "The key strategy, if you really want to win a bachelor," she said, "is to pool your money."
Minutes later, two more finalists, Nicki and Kathy, walked in to the restaurant — Talkeetna is the kind of town where tracking down your sources doesn't take much sleuthing. Nicki was 32, and Kathy 31; both were first-time competitors from Anchorage. They took turns speaking, with the easy rhythm of old friends.
"We heard about it a year ago and thought it sounded like a fun weekend," said Nicki.
"I teach Zumba," Kathy said, "so I have cardio."
"We're really quite active in the outdoors." Nicki again.
"And competitive," Kathy chimed in.
But the contest was not their top priority, and neither seemed too concerned about winning it all — or, for that matter, landing a bachelor. "If it was a powder day," said Nicki, "we probably wouldn't be here."
Carmen and I were outside the auction venue when the doors opened precisely at 6 p.m., standing in a long line hoping we would make it in before the fire code maximum was reached. Inside, rows of folding chairs were lined up facing the stage, with a long catwalk cutting down a middle aisle between them. The place was jammed with women, far more than had competed that afternoon, their ages ranging from 21 — the legal minimum for the event — into the 40s and 50s. In one corner, a cash bar was booming; in another, a team of volunteers handed out auction paddles — numbered paper plates — and collected credit card information from everyone who picked one up. A purchase was a purchase at the auction, and no morning-after, sober second thoughts would be permitted.
The whole thing had been a truly peculiar mixture of jokes, booze, sexual innuendos and genuine athleticism.
Carmen and author Eva Holland before their heat.
I craned my neck to look up at the women lining the balconies above me, and thought about the strangeness of the weekend. It felt odd to be raising money for women trapped in unbearable circumstances by jokingly competing to impress — and purchase — a group of unknown men. (Though, I had to admit, I was impressed by their very public commitment to a cause that so many of us would rather not confront at all.) The whole thing had been a truly peculiar mixture of jokes, booze, sexual innuendos and genuine athleticism — and the auction hadn't even gotten underway yet. Some of my friends back in Whitehorse had been pretty skeptical about the event; most of them got stuck on the sandwich-making portion of the contest. "It's meant to be funny," I'd told one, a tad defensively. "It doesn't sound funny," she said. (But then, she hadn't seen James covered in mustard and soaked in beer.)
The irony was, many of the tasks represented in the contest really were daily acts for true "wilderness women" — my friend Carmen, for instance, lived 40 minutes outside town in a cabin with no power or plumbing, and had to chop wood and haul water on a routine basis. But the women who came to compete were urbanites for the most part, or at least the closest thing Alaska has to urbanites, and so the whole thing became a kind of lighthearted parody, a cartoon version of frontier living.
But if it was a caricature, it was a fun and addictive one to be a part of. I already caught myself strategizing for next year: Most of the finalists, I had noted, had worn leggings and lightweight trail runners, while I'd lumbered along in heavy winter boots and snowpants. I would free myself up from all that bulk next time around, I decided. And, like Kathy, I would concentrate on cardio. This year I had trained, but for the wrong things: I had attacked my cousin's woodpile with an ax and splitting maul, thinking we could be asked to chop whole logs instead of using a saw, and I had spent a dark, frigid evening outside of city limits, picking off beer cans with a friend's rifle by the light of my Jeep's high beams, to prepare for the shooting portion of the contest. But target practice was hardly necessary to hit a wall of balloons at 10 paces. The water run was the key, I reminded myself. Next year, I would be ready.
Just after 7 p.m., the bachelors paraded down the catwalk and filled the stage. They spanned several decades in age, and most wore suits and fedoras, in keeping with this year's "gangsters of love" theme. Some danced and played to the crowd, hamming it up; others shuffled onstage awkwardly, apparently there more for the cause than for desire. Emcee Todd appeared: It was time to announce the winner.
In third place, Todd announced, was Kelly Spacepants. Second place went to the now-dethroned 2012 champion, Khalial. And first place, as the crowd screamed in approval, went to Stephanie, who bounded up on stage — fully clothed now —and dropped down to execute several pushups before accepting flowers, a sash and her prize, a beautiful fur hat. Around her, the bachelors fell to their hands and knees, raising their arms in a "We're not worthy" gesture. Then the women exited the stage, and it was time for the auction to begin.
Later, Stephanie would tell me that this was her second year competing. She had showed up the year before just planning to party, but had entered at the last minute, and made her name by stripping down to her bra at the start line. "I was walking up to the start line last year and I was like, if I'm gonna do this then I'm gonna do it," she said. But she had spilled too much water in her debut attempt, and had been eliminated after the first round. This year, she'd been pleased and surprised to make it through to the finals; even after completing the full three rounds, she still thought that the water round was the hardest event. The title, though, had come down to the sawing, she figured. "Khalial, she's a hard-ass," she told me. "She's a really tough outdoorswoman." And yes, she promised, she'd be back to defend her title next year.
In the auction hall, the bachelors vanished backstage and then reappeared one by one, making their way down the catwalk as the music blared and Todd extolled their virtues to the crowd. Some men danced or sang, while others offered enticements to spice up their date: a ride on a dogsled, say, or a flightseeing tour of Denali in the bachelor's personal ski plane. The prices started in the low hundreds and then, as the women in the audience loosened up and the excitement of the evening took hold, soared into the high hundreds and even the thousands. (The event would raise $23,000 in total.) Some of the men offered stripteases to the crowd; one man removed his suit piece by piece ... to reveal a Pabst Blue Ribbon-branded onesie underneath.
I thought back to the Travel Channel film crew I'd been interviewed by that morning, before the contest. I'd asked them what show they were filming the segment for. The answer, they'd deadpanned, was "Only in Alaska."