DAWSON CITY, YUKON - My stomach turned as I watched Marcus gulp down his cocktail, the blackened, mangled toe swirled around the rim of his glass eerily. The crowd cheered and clapped at this feat but I felt repulsed.
“Don’t worry, the toe has been mummified. There’s no taste and no odour. All you have to do is get past the appearance,” explained Terry, the “Toe Captain,” the man in charge of the Yukon’s most notorious ritual; the Sour Toe Cocktail.
For decades, travellers from all over the world have descended upon Dawson City’s Downtown Hotel to swig a cocktail adorned with a human toe. If that sounds weird to you, then your opinions will require a lot of adjustment in the Yukon. Noted for wild, untamed wilderness and behaviour to match, the Yukon territory is unlike any place in the world.
Located at the tip of northwest Canada and filled with mountains, plateaus and glaciers, the Yukon is striking on many levels. Both the terrain and the people inspire constant double takes.
The Yukon developed a reputation as a rugged, unconquerable place most famously in the 1890s, when the Klondike gold rush lured thousands to the inhospitable land. But even though that was over a century ago, I found that the sense of wildness is still very much a part of the Yukon lifestyle. And there’s just nothing wilder than sipping a drink with a human toe in it.
I had heard about the Sour Toe Cocktail Club well before I had arrived in Dawson City on a brisk June afternoon. But as I observed a line snake all the way out the door of the Downtown Hotel, I realized that I still wasn’t quite prepared for the situation. A bearded and blonde bartender sat down at a table with a stack of certificates. The certificates are awarded to each guest who downs a Sour Toe Cocktail, declaring them official members of the Sour Toe Cocktail Club. A bartered log book records the names of the 100,000 members and counting. With a serious look, the bartender placed a silver platter covered with salt and topped with a shrivelled toe, in the middle of the table. Each guest clutched their cocktail of choice from the bar, the only rule is that it must contain hard liquor. As Marcus sat at the table with his vodka shot, the blonde chanted “You can drink it fast. You can drink it slow. But your lips must touch the toe.”
He sunk the toe into the shot glass and after plopping down the $5 fee, Marcus quickly chugged the drink. Stone-faced and hailing from Berlin, Marcus seemed unfazed but I almost wretched when the bartender squeezed the “toe jam” from the toe for an extra few drops for Marcus to drink.
Left: Terry is the (Sour) Toe (cocktail) Captain. Right: The Yukon is the land of the midnight sun and fun!
Dawson City’s toe drinking practice started in 1973, when Captain Dick Stevenson unearthed an alcohol preserved toe dating back to the regions 1920s mining days, in an old cabin. He and his friends thought it was a clever idea to serve the toe in a cocktail. The Sour Toe name is a reference to the Sourdough nickname for Yukon residents who have survived at least one winter. Terry Lee, the official “Toe Captain,” keeps track of the toes and knows the history and condition of each one. So far, there have been 11.
“I’m the toe captain, I make sure that the toe is in good shape. I look up the person’s (toe owner) name and date,” he said. “The toes have been stolen and swallowed and we’ve had anonymous donations. We get most of them through wills. The current toe is a female specimen that was severed while she was mowing the lawn in sandals.” Outfitted in a chest length white beard and a mountaineer hat, Terry looks as if he could be a ’20s era miner, which I soon discover is the preferred Yukon dress style.
Strolling the gravely streets of Dawson City, I spot quite a few men in long beards and 19th century accessories like suspenders and bowler hats. But after I’m invited to a local chef’s event I was provided with my own selection of 19h century “Yukon wear” for the occasion. I learned that dressing in old school duds is really part of the local lifestyle. So I donned a petticoat and skirt with high-collared shirt and watched as a Yukon delicacy, elk heart, was grilled in butter for appreciative guests.
Later, the midnight sun blazed at 9 p.m. as I made my way back to Bombay Peggy’s the former bordello and speakeasy transformed into a hotel. At Peggy’s you’re required to remove your shoes at the door before stepping on the crimson carpet and enjoying complimentary sherry in the drawing room. I preferred to sip on the sherry in crystal goblets rather than visit the hotel’s pub, which serves martini’s with names like “Bloomer Remover” and “Titillating Tart” — but, hey, that’s just me.
The next day, I make my way to the Southwest corner of the Yukon to Kluane National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to Canada’s highest peak, Mount Logan (5,959 metres). Although mountaineering and hiking are popular Yukon activities, a big portion of the park is inaccessible by foot or car so flight seeing in a small Cessna is the the only way to gain complete views of the world’s largest non-polar ice fields.
Above: Klaune National Park is one of Canada's most scenic.
I hop into the plane with Easton, my gregarious pilot, who supplies me with a breakdown of the landscape of Kluane National Park. Mount Logan is actually the largest ice sheet that’s not part of an ice cap, in the world. Logan boasts about a dozen peaks and most of those peaks have their own sub-peaks. In other words, it’s really, really massive. The surrounding glaciers are created from fallen snow that was packed into layers over time. The layers of snow freeze into ice, and the glaciers begin to flow like rivers because of their expansive size.
Swooping up over emerald valleys, I see mountains and glaciers begin to emerge. Easton swerves closer so that I glimpse the crystalline spectacle of frozen ribbons of glaciers. The panorama expands to include icebergs floating and a partial view of Mt. Logan, peeking through the clouds.
The image is like seeing another planet, the beauty of frozen blue crevices and perfectly formed glaciers looks other-worldly but then again, I had already figured out that the Yukon truly is another world.