Taking pride in being a member of the Sourtoe Club

Arthur Black takes a look at one of Canada's strangest customs

There are strange things done ‘neath the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold…

 

 

 

Indeed there are, Robert Service. I’ve even done a few of them myself — including (hugely unsuccessfully) moil for gold. I’ve also fallen off a dogsled, stuck my head down a wolf den and crossed the Yukon River on breaking ice. (These feats were accomplished in my green and rowdy youth. Alcohol, not to mention stupidity, was usually involved).

The Arctic trails have their secret tales that could make your blood run cold.

All of which is not to suggest I am some hardened leathery Yukoner who spent years north of 60. Nope, I’m an outsider, a visitor, a tourist. A sourdough I am definitely not.

But sourtoe? Ah, I can speak to that.

There is this hotel, you see, in downtown Dawson called the, er, Downtown Hotel. It looks like most of the hotels and buildings in Dawson — clapboard siding, wooden floors, no frills, no neon — but it has one distinguishing feature.

The Downtown Hotel is the only drinking establishment in the world where you can order and drink a Sourtoe Cocktail.

A Sourtoe Cocktail is pretty straightforward. First the bartender gives you get a glass full of Yukon Jack, a sweet-tasting whisky. There is no lime slice, no ice, no perky paper umbrella sticking out of it, but the Sourtoe Cocktail does contain one garnish that sets it aside from all other mixed drinks this side of the bar in Star Wars. At the bottom of your glass you will see something lurking that looks like a mutant peanut or twisted hank of rope.

Except there’s a nail on the end of it. A human nail. You have a severed human toe in your glass.

The origins of the Sourtoe Cocktail are lost in time. Some claim a Klondiker accidentally chopped off his toe while splitting wood one winter and never got around to throwing it away.  Come spring he limped into town, ordered a beer, plopped his wizened appendage in the glass and announced “I’m gonna take a leak; nobody touch my drink while I’m gone.”

Nobody did. The tradition of the Sourtoe Cocktail was born.

It has evolved to this: Back of the bar in the Downtown Hotel there is a locked wooden box.  Inside the box, embalmed in a jar of salt, resides the ‘current’ Sourtoe.  More about ‘current’ later. Your assignment, should you choose to become a member of the elite Sourtoe Club, is to (a) Pay $5 for a membership card, (b) Pay $5 for your Sourtoe Cocktail, (c) Drain your glass.

Wait a minute!  Surely you don’t have to…

No. But the Toe Captain will tell you: “Drink it fast or drink it slow; your lips must touch this gnarly toe.”

Like most initiates I chose to drink mine fast. Like most initiates I still shudder when I remember that mummified digit bumping against my upper lip.

Some first-timers in their haste, drink the cocktail a little too fast. That’s why we have a ‘current’ category of toes — because occasionally somebody swallows the toe and it must be replaced. Where do they find a replacement? Don’t ask.

Isn’t it illegal to sell drinks with human parts in them?  Of course, but this is Dawson.  They don’t get many government inspector types up there. Besides, technically, the bar doesn’t ‘sell’ you a Sourtoe Cocktail. They sell you a glass of whisky.  What you choose to put in it is up to you.

What kind of idiot would choose to join the Sourtoe Club?

About 65,000 of us so far. I’m not sure why, although once again I suspect that alcohol and stupidity are contributing factors. I can’t even prove I belong because I misplaced my membership card years ago.  And I can’t re-apply because I don’t drink anymore.

Mind you, I still have plenty of stupid.