Dawson City – Toe Die For

Liz in Dawson City bar Dawson City ToeAre there any depths a food writer won’t plumb for a story? Apparently not.

I’m finding it hard to believe, but I’m actually about to drink neat gin containing a toe – yes a real human toe!

No, I haven’t turned cannibal or discovered some new crazy sect. Well, perhaps crazy isn’t an entirely unapt description of a community that not only embraces this drink, but also offers a dog ball high ball (ingredients obvious if you think about it for a minute), each year in March. This canine cocktail celebrates the beginning of the winter thaw and is sold to raise funds for – you guessed it – the Humane Society in Dawson City, Yukon.

Why am I going to drink a Sourtoe Cocktail? Why, to prove that I’m not simply a Cheechako (incomer to the Yukon) but I have the grit in me to be a real Sourdough (Yukoner). Proving you’ve got the stuff to be a true Sourdough is a tradition that goes back a long way.

Ice worms too?

In 1906, “Stroller” White, editor of the Whitehorse Star, desperate for something to fill the pages of his newspaper, waxed poetic about ice worms. In response, a local bar created an ice worm cocktail, containing an actual worm.

Yukon’s bard, Robert Service, who could never resist a joke, made these legendary in a poem about a hapless major from England who was bullied into drinking one containing a 4-inch long ice worm.

In the words of Service:

“And with a roar the mob proclaimed: “Cheechako, Major Brown,
Reveal that you’re of Sourdough stuff, and drink your cocktail down.”

The major did, but didn’t keep it down.  And Service reveals the truth in the final lines of his poem:

“For that ice-worm (so they told him) of such formidable size
Was – a stick of stained spaghetti with two red ink spots for eyes.”

Dawson City Toe

THE toe – and yes, it DID touch my lips!

However, while the ice worm is a fake, the toe currently confronting me is very real.

The origins of the pickled toe

Its own history started with a prospector (this is, after all, the home of the Klondike Gold Rush) who lost his big toe to frostbite – a not uncommon occurrence. But he dropped his into a bottle of rum to preserve it. After he  died, the next owner of his small cabin, Cap’n Dick Stevenson, who had migrated here from New Brunswick, found himself with a pickled toe.

And this, folks, is where Northern insanity takes over. His friends bet him that he wouldn’t drink a cocktail with the toe in it. Of course, he did and a tradition – the Sourtoe Cocktail – was born. Stevenson printed up a bunch of certificates and offered the challenge to any visitors to the bar in Dawson City who wanted to qualify as a real Sourdough.

One has to admire the entrepreneurial spirit of the good captain. For $5 he lets you add the toe to your drink – which must be neat alcohol – and presents you with a certificate of achievement. The only qualifier is that the toe must touch your lips.

In a land where the ground remains firmly entrenched in permafrost, and the sun hardly shines for at least half the year, such apparent lunacy doesn’t seem quite as mad. It’s only later, when I return to Toronto and tell friends about it, that I realize just how crazy it is.

And the insanity continues

And if the inherent lunacy of consuming this drink isn’t enough, consider this. While the original toe is long gone, (there’s a story that someone actually swallowed it!), many others have donated their own frostbitten toes to the cause! When I visit the charming little cemetery outside town, I find myself wondering, which of its inhabitants are minus a big toe?

So here I am, in the Downtown Bar in Dawson City, with my own Sourtoe Cocktail, about to accept the challenge. Apparently I’m in good company. More than 40,000 people have downed one of these – my certificate says I’m no. 44,120! Add up those $5 bills 40,000 times and you can see that one needn’t dredge the earth for gold in the Yukon.

Dawson City toeWhat’s a Sourtoe Cocktail like? Frankly, the neat gin is far more distasteful than the toe – which does, indeed, touch my lips. When his turn comes, another customer holds it cigar style, between his teeth. But I’m content with my small effort ….and my certificate.

A Mecca for the mad

The point of this tale isn’t simply to boast of my achievement. Well, perhaps it is, just a little. But it’s a small illustration of the sorts of wacky and wonderful characters you will find in Dawson City – a kind of distillation from every part of the world.

In a population that numbers less than 2000 in winter and quadruples when the sun warms the place up and the summer staff and tourists fill the town, Dawson boasts more than its reasonable share of eccentrics. And meeting them is a large part of the fun of a visit.

Visiting the shops around town, I meet incomers from Holland, Germany, Switzerland, the US and other parts of Canada. Each has a unique and often hilarious reason for being in the Yukon, and each invariably adds in some form, “I love living here. There’s nowhere else on earth like it.” No doubt!

Robert Service cabin Dawson City toeI visit the little, two-room cabin, once inhabited by Robert Service. Here, Canada’s bard immortalized the characters of the Gold Rush, most of whom went home with pockets filled with iron pyrites (fool’s gold). And I sit in his rustic wooden chair on the front porch and read The Ballad of Sam McGee. It’s an entertaining tale but beware, most of it is also pure pyrites – only believed by fools.

But Dawson itself is pure gold – a treasure trove of characters, history and some of the most spectacular scenery in Canada. And then there’s the fact that this is the only place you can test your mettle on a genuine Sourtoe Cocktail. Can you do it?

Want to know more about Dawson City, check out this story I wrote for East West News Service.