Dawson City is perhaps one of the most unique places in the Yukon, indeed in Canada or the world. Like a perfectly preserved gold rush town, it is home to some truly intriguing characters and experiences. Take the sourtoe cocktail, a notorious drink that is served with a severed human toe in it. Did I dare to give it a go? Read on Dear Reader!
There's a certain person that is attracted to the Yukon's wildest and most enigmatic town Dawson City. The person may be unique, like the Caveman who lives in a cave across the Yukon River. Another sort of person could be someone like Captain Dick Stevenson. His job was to administer a severed toe drink to people (more on that later).
I just never knew that person might be me though.
From the second I step foot in Dawson City, I fall resoundingly for its quirky charm. I'm not the first certainly - the city which is about 7 hours' drive or 1.5 hours by plane North of Whitehorse is known for its unique colonial architecture. The Klondike gold rush made its mark in Dawson City in 1896 and today the population sits at around 1,500 people.
What strikes anyone during their first visit is the buildings. Like a perfectly preserved glimpse of a gold mining town in its heydey, the buildings date back to the late 1800's when the gold rush occurred. They tilt, they slant caused by the thawing permafrost. The buildings range from Classical revival, Gothic Revival and log cabin and there are no paved streets or walkways, just boardwalk and gravel. You feel almost out of place walking down the streets in modern day clothing. I'm reminded of Western land in Disneyland except everything is real here. The main part of Dawson City is laid out in a grid pattern within easy walking distance.
Dawson City and indeed the Yukon is full of personalities. There was Klondike Kate, a vaudeville performer who spent some time here is said to haunt the stunningly beautiful Palace Grand Theatre. Another name is Bombay Peggy's, a brothel which no doubt was popular with the miners. The run down brothel was purchased in 1998 by Wendy Craig who moved it to its current location where it is now our hotel for the evening. It should be a very interesting place to stay.
I'm not disappointed. Each room in the Victorian Inn is decorated differently and mine is the Lipstick Room, heavily inspired by the brothel and is definitely the best room in town. There is a Persian rug, black velveteen bed spread, leopard print covered chair, an old fashioned telephone that works and on the blood red walls are framed pictures of various ladies that may have worked in that profession.
The bathroom has a claw foot bath and plenty of bath products. It's on the small side so the sink is in the main room but it's a comfortable room and I must admit to experiencing some salacious delight at the link between this and the brothel of the past.
The lobby or parlour is where sweets like Nanaimo bars, sherry and port are available for guests in the early evening. Downstairs you need to remove your shoes before walking upstairs (the unpaved streets are muddy when it rains).
Internet is fast and free for unlimited devices and the only complaint would be that because it is connected to a pub, it can get noisy at least until midnight so bring ear plugs or get ready to join in a chorus downstairs of "Oops I Did it Again" by Britney Spears.
Because the town is easily laid out in a grid pattern it's hard to get lost. There are street names like King, Queen and Princess street in order of seniority and these are crossed with ascending streets with numbered names like Front, Second, Third etc.
It's just before 6pm that we walk down the street to The Drunken Goat Taverna. Food here is Greek and everyone here looks to be having a great time. It's already busy and it's Friday night so everyone is relaxed. We take a seat by the window and the interior comforting and rustic.
Appy platter for two $39.95
We start with an appy (appetiser) platter that has tiropita (five cheese and herb pastry), garidas (prawns in garlic butter and white wine on rice) but my two favourite bits from the sizeable platter are the warm, soft pita bread and the garlicky tzatziki dip.
Tony's Signature Greek Ribs $28.95
Although I don't really need a main as we shared the above platter between three people I'm curious about the ribs. I had all intentions of just trying these but it's like climbing a mountain as the size of the plate of ribs is enormous. The baby back ribs are soft and flavoured with lemon and herb sauce and it comes on a bed of flavoured rice studded with carrot, peas and beans that is surprisingly flavoursome. There is also a Greek salad on the side and some delicious lemon potatoes.
But all of this is really preparation for what is about to happen next. I mentioned the unique characters that inhabit Dawson City and one of them is Captain Terry Lee who regales our rapt audience with the story behind this bizarre Dawson City drink. And yes there is a severed toe in it and yes it is a human one. I know that you might be shaking your head right now. Yes it is real and don't worry, when I first heard about it 4 years ago I thought that it was some sort of strange joke. I could not believe that a) it was legal and b) people could actually drink something with a mummified human part in it. But I also knew that one day, I would see it for myself.
Terry explains the history of how the sour toe cocktail came about. "The story started back in the 1930's or ate 20's. There were two brothers by the name of Liken - Otto and Louie. They were rum runners and they had a cabin on the mouth of Miller Creek on the Sixty Mile River and they would run illegal rum into Alaska by dog team and they always did it during a blizzard so they trail would blow and nobody could track them."
We listen intently to him and he continues, "It was Louie's turn to go out so he backed up the sleigh and was heading up the river and he put his foot through some overflow and he got his right foot wet. He was in the middle of the blizzard so he couldn't stop so he made the run to Alaska and came back to the cabin. When he took his boots and socks off the big toe on his right foot was frozen solid. So his brother said, 'If that gets gangrenous you're dead and we're sixty miles away from anything'. So he got an axe and he chopped his brother's toe off".
"For some strange reason, nobody knows why Otto took a mason jar and put the toe in it and filled it up with the O.P. rum and sealed it and there it sat for 40 years. In 1972 there was a lady by the name of Lou Wallace who later became Lou Stevenson. Captain Dick Stevenson had a tour boat business. She was also a silver prospector so she had the cabin but it was full of junk so she dragged Dick Stevenson out there to clean up the cabin. In the process he found the jar with the toe but he didn't think anything of it. He just put it back on the shelf and came to town," continues Terry.
Toe Captain Terry Lee
"In town he was always trying to come up with hare brained schemes to promote his tour business. So anyways there were two reporters, one from the Edmonton Journal and one from the Whitehorse Star. In passing he mentioned the toe. Dan Sawatsky from the Whitehorse Star was always needling Dick for his harebrained schemes so he said, 'Dick, you've got to bring that to town! That's an artefact from the gold rush, you've got to put that on display!', smiles Terry.
"And so Captain Dick got to thinking about the people that never stayed for the Winter, the cheechakos. The sourdoughs were of course those that had stayed the whole freezing Winter so he came up with the idea, 'For you to become an honourary sourdough, you must kiss the sourtoe!' So he talked some guys into doing it in the Spring and in the Fall he had eight members of the sourtoe cocktail club. The Edmonton Journal came back and wrote it up as a human interest story and it took off and the rest is history," says Terry.
And over this time, how many toes have there been? "Were on toe #11. They've been stolen, they've been lost, they've been swallowed and then they just go beyond use." Usually the toes are anonymous donations through wills. The toe captain's responsibility is to make sure the toe is in good condition, to take the person's particulars and fill out the certificate and present it to them. It costs $5 to do "kiss the toe" plus the cost of the shot or drink that you buy at the bar.
The original fine for swallowing the toe was $500 but it is now $2,500. Which brings us to a rather sore point for Captain Terry where someone recently did the unthinkable. "On August 24th, 2013 at 11:15pm a guy swallowed the toe...he did it on purpose and he took the $500 out and put it on the table. We had this toe and the other toe. The other toe was the better toe... He put it down and he had a beer. He had a slug of the beer and got up and said "It's down". It was stuck in this throat. He came this close to dying," says Terry.
How did he react? "I was ready to beat on him. I had to really, really control myself. The manager came over in his pyjamas. By that time the guy had left but everyone knew who he was and he went up the Dempster and in one of the outhouses in the Dempster is where the toe now resides...There were some guys that said, 'Look you're going to have ten toes when we find this guy'".
The freelance writer was from New Orleans and his dreams of writing the ultimate story did not come to fruition according to Terry. "The story I hear was that he went back and he was sitting on five different boards of directors and within a month he was sitting on zero. He wrote it up and he tried to publish it," to no avail. "It just completely backfired. What he did was a slap in the face to the KVA (Klondike Vistor's Association), the sourtoe cocktail and the people of Dawson," explains Terry.
From the other room we hear roars and cheers. The sour toe is only available from 9pm-11pm every night at the Downtown Hotel, the home of the sourtoe cocktail. There is a table set up where the toe Captain Bob is surrounded by people all holding a shot of their favourite drink ready to have a mummified, severed toe deposited into it. On the table is a plate lined with salt with a black object in the centre. That is the mummified toe. The story goes that the toe on the plate came from a woman who decided to mow the lawn wearing sandals. The severed edge of the toe makes it look even more gruesome as does the toe nail on top. "It is a really gnarly toe. Usually when we get the toe from the hospital it is a clean cut it looks really neat. This one is all jagged at the end," says Terry.
The line is long and Cailin and I resign ourselves to waiting. It's just the two of us from the group of writers that are game (or crazy enough) to try it. I waver a little in my resolve but the fact that nobody is sick and everyone says that there is no "toe taste" persuades me. Eventually at around 10pm we reach the front. I hand over my glass of Yukon Jack which is dubbed "The black sheep of Canadian liquors". It is an 80 proof whisky with a mixture of whisky and honey. You hand over $5 for the sour toe and they ask for your name and where you come from which is recorded in a book and on your certificate. It also comes with a card so that should you want to do this again over the next year, you just need to show them the card. And the record is held by a woman called Vashti who lives in B.C. who has done the toe 157 times.
Captain Bob then asks if I know the rules. These are:
- Do not swallow the toe
- Do not let the toe past your lips-that will have you labelled as a "toe biter"
- You must kiss the toe
The toe. I know...
"You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch the toe," says Captain Bob. Taking a breath I lift the glass up and I drink quickly, some dripping down the side of my mouth. The toe almost gets stuck at the bottom (or top) of the glass and then it hits me on my lips. I kissed the toe!
Then comes the perhaps most difficult bit. Captain Bob squeezes the remaining liquor out of the toe and invites me to drink the "toe jam". I have to admit that both serves of the drink and the toe tastes like nothing but the alcohol. The toe is so mummified that there is no additional flavour from it. And probably a good thing too!
Terry tells us, that about once a year they serve up the foot (i.e. the big toe and four small toes) usually during the Yukon Quest dog sled race in February. "Those small toes are called hammer toes which are what we call deformed so if someone swallows one of those, it's most likely not going to go down and it's most likely not going to come up." The toe does sometimes go travelling and Captain Dick (who is still alive and 86 years old and living in Whitehorse) took the toe travelling during Winter. The toe was also stolen and it was being served in the states. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police got involved with the state police and got the toe back.
And what about Captain Terry? Has he donated his toes? "In my will I'm donating all ten of my toes. Plus another part of my body that's going to have to be served in a pitcher and it's going to give a new meaning to the word cocktail!" he quips laughing.
So tell me Dear Reader, would you ever try or have you tried the sour toe cocktail? And are you an organ donor or would you donate your toe for this cause? And if I made you gag, I'm sorry!
And just because I knew that I needed to record the whole thing for posterity's sake, here is a video of Toe Captain Terry Lee and then me "Kissing the toe"!
NQN visited Canada as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism Yukon but did the toe and paid for it on her own accord.
Corner Second Ave and Princess Street, Dawson, YT, Canada
The Drunken Goat Taverna
950 Second Ave, Dawson, YT Y0B 1G0, Canada
Corner of Second Avenue and Queen Street, Dawson, YT, Canada