My evening started out — as it often does in Dawson City — with a severed human toe dropped into my drink.
But let me back up a little.
Unlike the thousands of prospectors who descended on this town in Yukon, Canada, around the turn of the century for the Klondike Gold Rush, I had come simply in search of some fun.
Just a couple degrees of latitude below the Arctic Circle, Dawson has been showing people a good time since a couple of prospectors struck gold out on Bonanza Creek back in 1897. In just a few months, more than 100,000 hopeful souls had stampeded north, following their dreams of wealth and riches into a rugged land of extremes.
These days however, Dawson is home to less than 2,000 inhabitants — of whom only about 800 stay through the winter — and the entire town site is preserved as a national park. Wooden sidewalks skirt past false-fronted stores, some of them askew on their foundations, victims of permafrost, the always-frozen ground a few feet down that has a tendency to shift and heave. But the gold rush spirit never really left these parts. Although most of it is gone, there’s still some gold in them there hills, and miners — both big operations, and individuals with determination, patience and a pan — still come here in search of their fortune.
Despite the faded promise of riches, many more people come to enjoy the town’s legendary nightlife.
Both young adventurers and an older cruise crowd — who often stop over on a side trip, as part of a journey along Alaska’s Inside Passage — play blackjack and watch can-can dancers in Canada’s oldest gambling hall (called Diamond Tooth Gertie’s — a former brothel, or down local Yukon Gold Lager at the Westminster Hotel, known affectionately as The Pit, which has been serving them up nonstop since 1898.
And while surely some of the hardy men and women who hiked and skied over the Chilkoot Trail and up the Yukon River lost toes (and more) to frostbite, the shriveled, brown appendage sitting before me on a pile of rock salt was not one of them. Drinking the Sourtoe Cocktail at Dawson’s Downtown Hotel is a much more recent tradition.
Legend has it that the original toe came from a local moonshiner who suffered a bad case of frostbite while running from the law. As the story goes, he had to perform his own amputation with an axe and then preserved it in a jar of alcohol. The jar, they say, was found decades later by a man named Captain Dick Stevenson who, quite sensibly, took it to a nearby bar and started dropping it in people’s drinks.
Since then, the Downtown Hotel has gone through at least 10 toes, most of them donated by family members once a loved one passes. Some of the former toes sit buried in a small graveyard by the front door. Last summer, one more bit the dust when an American made international headlines by marching in, plunking $500 on the bar (the standard penalty at the time for damaging the toe) and swallowed it whole. A worldwide search ensued, for more toes to fill the role.
The Sourtoe is about $4 ($5 Canadian), plus the price of your drink. The preferred method is via a shot of Yukon Jack Whiskey, but they will do it in any kind of drink—kids under 19 (the legal drinking age in the Yukon and most of Canada) can even drink it with water or ginger ale in the hotel lobby (they’re not allowed in the bar in the evening).
I was about to become the 57,926th member of the Sourtoe Club, whose sole criteria for entry is having participated in this rather disgusting ritual. Terry Lee (a.k.a., the “Toe Captain”) told me that, unlike Stevenson, he is an actual captain, licensed to pilot a Great Lakes trawler and a former marine engineer on the ferry that spirits Alaska-bound drivers across the Yukon River, just a couple blocks away. He’s been dropping the toe in people’s drinks for two years now, for as many as 125 people a night. “I’ve seen them from all around the world — from Uzbekistan to Iran, Iraq, Tahiti,” he said. “There’s no typical reaction. It goes all the way from ‘Yuck!’ to ‘Oooooh!’”
Stalling for time while gathering my courage, I mentioned to Lee the famous poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee, which was written by Yukon icon Robert Service in 1907 and speaks of strange things done under the midnight sun. Lee agreed it was appropriate, and rhymed off a few lines from memory: “Here are strange things done in the midnight sun, by the men who moil for gold; the Arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold; the Northern Lights have seen queer sights, but the queerest they ever did see; was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge, I cremated Sam McGee.”
And then it was time. No more procrastinating. Pointing out the now-quintupled fine of $2500, lest I get any ideas of swallowing it, Lee incanted, “You can drink it fast, you can drink slow, but your lips must touch this gnarly toe,” as he plunked it, with a small splash, into my Yukon Jack whisky. I drank it fast — slow would’ve been too painful. Tipping back the tumbler, I slammed back the alcohol, the brown toe sliding quickly forward and touching my top lip. A small cheer went up. I was in the club.
Some people say they can smell the toe, and that it smells very bad. I didn’t smell it, and it tasted mostly like whiskey. The worst part was when I realized that a tiny piece of the toe — maybe the size of a small hangnail — had come off and was on the rim of my now-empty tumbler. This probably meant that another piece (or pieces) had actually been in the drink, gone down the hatch, and were working their way through my digestive system. I felt no ill affects afterward — other than psychological.
Taking my yellow certificate, I sauntered off, into the streets of Dawson, in search of a few more strange things done under the midnight sun, and a good time.
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