Back in the dark old days of 1973, a group of Dawsonites was debating how one could become an honorary sourdough (the name given by the early gold miners to those who had stayed in the Yukon from the freezing of the river in October to its break-up in May) without actually having to sit out the bitter months of winter. One of them, Dick Stevenson, had recently bought a cabin just outside Dawson from a couple of brothers who used to haul bootleg booze over the border into Alaska during the years of prohibition. They’d travelled by dogsled and, on one journey, one of them had put his foot through some overflow ice and his big toe had frozen.
The toe had to be amputated to prevent gangrene but the brothers had no access to a doctor. So they just used those tools they had: they drank a fearsome quantity of the rum they were hauling, then one brother hacked off the other’s frozen toe with their woodchopping axe. For reasons best known to themselves they preserved the toe in alcohol and stashed it in their cabin as a keepsake, and there it stayed until Dick inherited it. Maybe, Dick suggested, one could become a ‘sourtoe’ rather than a sourdough. Qualifiers must down a drink garnished with the preserved, frostbitten digit – and the toe must touch the drinker’s lips.
Thanks to Dawson’s summer tourist trade, today there are tens of thousands of members of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. The first toe met its end some years back: in July 1980, a placer miner named Garry Younger was trying for the sourtoe record. As he drank his 13th cocktail (in those days they were beer glasses full of champagne, though today you can order the tipple of your choice), he fell backwards off his bar stool, bumped his head and swallowed it.
‘I’ve seen two people swallow the toes,’ Matt Van Nostrand, co-owner of the Downtown, told me. ‘And a few summers ago, I saw someone chew one up and spit it out. He was pretty intoxicated.’ Fortunately for the Sourdough Saloon, generous amputees from far and wide have donated replacements. Van Nostrand currently has 12 in his collection – two big toes (one male, one female) and 10 little ones. The furthest-travelled toe came from Virginia. ‘A woman emailed us and said that she had this toe she could send us,’ Van Nostrand said. ‘I think that one was a lawnmower accident.’
To learn more about the sourtoe cocktail and Yukon’s cultural highlights, check our our guide: