'Sour Toe' cocktail bespeaks oddities that tourists enjoy in Yukon Territory

August 18, 1991|By Storer H. Rowley | Storer H. Rowley,Chicago Tribune

DAWSON CITY, Yukon Territory -- A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Sluice Box Lounge some years back when a Yukon "Sourdough" set out to prove that some people will swallow anything.

Capt. Dick "River Rat" Stevenson concocted the "Sour Toe" cocktail, a drink flavored by a petrified human big toe at the bottom of the glass -- the original the legacy of a frostbitten trapper.

Stranger yet, Mr. Stevenson since then has coaxed, challenged and charged nearly 9,000 local residents and visitors to sample his bizarre libation, dubbed "the strangest drink in history."

Over the years, two of the toes have accidentally been swallowed and one was stolen by a Texas big game hunter. Yet people keep donating digits, and Mr. Stevenson is now serving up his eighth toe.

Mr. Stevenson has no problems with the law. The list of imbibers includes health and liquor inspectors, government ministers and off-duty Mounties.

The frontier spell of the Yukon, immortalized by the turn-of-the-century poet Robert Service in colorful tales of the North and the Klondike Gold Rush, still draws people from around the world to what the poet called "The Land God Forgot."

A few miners still pan for gold in the creeks outside Dawson City, but the local economy depends more than ever these days on the loot the resident Sourdoughs can mine from the steady flow of "Cheechakos" who stream through in campers and tour buses.

The haunting call of the wild that beckons with Arctic extremes -- from the midnight summer sun to the 60-below cold in winter and the ghostly Northern Lights -- also brings out truly eccentric behavior among Yukoners and travelers.

There are gold-panning championships, sled-dog mushing and annual midnight sun summer solstice parties with snowball fights atop a mountain overlooking Dawson City.

Since Service's day and before, a Sourdough has been a person who stays here to see the Yukon River freeze in the fall, endures the long winter and watches the spring breakup at least once. A "Cheechako" was, and is, a tenderfoot who has not. To Yukoners, the "outside" is everywhere else.

"The Northern Lights have seen queer sights," Service wrote almost a century ago in one of his rhyming ballads of Yukon pioneers who fought the land, the cold and each other for gold.

Today, many characters who inhabit this rugged Canadian territory of fast rivers, hardy spruce, remote mountains and Arctic tundra have learned to hustle a buck any way they can.

"Nostalgia! That's what we're selling here: nostalgia," said Dawson City Mayor Peter Jenkins, 46, who arrived here from Montreal 21 years ago to mine for gold and stayed.

"There's only two things in life that are really enjoyable, and the second one's making a dollar," said Mr. Jenkins with a smile, sipping coffee in the Eldorado Hotel, which he owns and which is the home of the infamous Sluice Box Lounge.

Around Dawson City, he said, there are 35 designated national historical sites, preserving the clapboard architecture of the late 1890s Gold Rush days when nearly 40,000 people turned this tent and log cabin outpost into a boom town.

Where prospectors once sought their fortunes, about 65,000 tourists now come annually to explore the North and spread their wealth in search of a Yukon adventure.

They pay $5 to pan for gold in a sluice box outside the Dawson Trading Post. They ante up to take in the Gaslight Follies at the Palace Grand Theatre. They play blackjack and roulette at Diamond Tooth Gerties, where showgirls dance the cancan and sing "Deep in the Heart of Texas." They ride riverboats and

crowd outside the Robert Service Cabin to hear readings of his poetry.

Tourism is down 30 percent in some parts of the Yukon this year because of the recession. Normally, 60 percent of visitors are Americans, followed next by Canadians and German-speaking Europeans.

Not all the territory's 26,800 people like the influx, even those who profit by it.

"There are more people coming into the territory with new ideas," said Capt. Rachel Madran, 34, a tour-boat operator on the Yukon River near the territorial capital of Whitehorse.

"It's all rush, rush, rush, and more people every summer, and that has changed everything. It's not the old Yukon way. We don't rush and we don't get upset about the things outsiders do."

"Yukoners are an independent bunch of people. It's independence that brought them here and independence that keeps them here," said Don Branigan, maverick mayor of Whitehorse.

Mr. Stevenson, 61, himself a riverboat pilot from a bygone age, claimed he got the idea for his "Sour Toe" cocktail from a Service poem about a British hunter who underwent an initiation rite to become a Sourdough.

Whatever its origin, the grotesque concoction has made Mr. Stevenson a local celebrity of sorts, to be found nightly sitting in the bar of the Westmark Hotel with his latest toe, this one donated by a fan who lost it in a power lawn mower. Others came to him via frostbite or diabetes victims.

"I'm a toe sucker from way back," said Kathy Jensen, a grade school teacher from Denver touring the Yukon, joking about why she paid $5 for the privilege of downing a "Sour Toe" cocktail one recent night. "We all have our fetishes."

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