A bar in Dawson City, in Canada's Yukon, takes ‘dipping a toe in the water’ to a new and stomach-turning level. By Karen Halabi.

No time for cold feet in the Yukon

The Downtown Hotel in Dawson City, Yukon, home of the Sourdough Saloon.

The title of the magazine in the backseat pocket of the Alaska Airlines plane says it all: Yukon, North of Ordinary. And just like the characters from the slightly warped North American cold weather comedies Northern Exposure and Men in Trees, there’s nothing ordinary about the people who inhabit this wild territory. They’re all, like Canada’s remote Yukon itself, larger than life.

As one toothy old-timer tells me: “Those people who weren’t born here are either runnin’ away from something or runnin’ lookin’ for something. If you’re not in one of those two camps, you ain’t a true Yukoner.”

We land in the territory’s heart, at Whitehorse City, known as the Wilderness City or the Capital of the True North. 

“Where you stayin’?” my taxi driver, Charlie, asks as we head into town. “At the Worst Western?” 

I love the humour; it reminds me of back home. So different from their neighbours down south. I smile and gaze out at the astonishing snow-capped scenery and I’m surprised as we pass close by a black bear, perched on a rock, doing its business.

“Well,” Charlie says, “there’s your answer right there to the question, does a bear shit in the woods?”

Apparently bears assert their dominance by going to the highest spot they can find and sticking their bums in the air. There are about 10,000 black bears in the Yukon and 6000 grizzlies, and moose outnumber people two to one. I later learn there are more huskies than people, too – they’re needed in numbers to pull the sleds, still a significant mode of transport here. 

Even the mosquitoes here are larger than life and they’re big and slow. “The Yukon Wave” is the equivalent of our “great Aussie salute”. 

A vast open wilderness bordering Alaska and Inuit territory in Canada’s north-west, the Yukon takes your breath away at every turn. There are towering mountains in all directions. Its remoteness doesn’t come with a sense of being lost in the vastness, though – the wilderness pulls you in, and delivers an exhilarating sense of freedom. It’s a feeling of being away from everything. Of being dwarfed by the scale of nature. It’s calming and comforting.

Jack London wrote about it in Call of the Wild. The log cabin where he wrote after joining the Klondike gold rush, at the close of the 19th century, is in Dawson City. The Yukon gets a hold on you. It draws you in. Those who weren’t born here almost always have the same story: they came for a visit, fell in love with the place and, 20 years later, they’re still here. 

Wilderness guide Jill, rafting expedition leader Pat, local artist Joyce Majiski, who lives in a remote log cabin in the woods, Beverley Gray, who wrote the book The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North, and a French woman who runs Takhini lodge; all express their passion for the territory. Another, Margaret Goodwin, who hails from Sydney, tells me she “wouldn’t leave it for quids”. 

“There’s a certain type of person who chooses to live in the boreal north,” she says, then winks. “They say if you take a sip of the Yukon River,  you’re part of it and you’ll return.”

The Yukon may conjure up images of rugged and blokey frontiersmen, but it has certainly attracted some tough women. In Dawson City, my next stop, the entertainment venues of various repute, such as Klondike Kate’s, Ruby’s Place, Bombay Peggy’s and Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, still stand as testament to a rich history as the centre of the gold rush. 

Even today, most of the businesses in town are run by women. At the newly restored Bombay Peggy’s, where they offer martinis with names such as Brazen Hussy, Titillating Tart, Bloomer Remover and my personal favourite, 50° Below Job, I meet the new owner, Wendy Cairns. She tells me the original owner of the old whorehouse reportedly got her nickname during the war, in Shanghai, China, when an aviator boyfriend regularly dropped gifts for her from the bomb bay doors of his aircraft. 

In old Dawson, the saloons and the gambling ran around the clock. Miners would willingly squander their gold dust for a little “relaxation”. The men came to try their luck on the goldfields, lured by a fast buck and a few specks of gold that they would invariably lose on booze, cards or dance-hall girls. Thousands of fortune seekers risked their lives coming up the Chilkoot Pass to reach Dawson City and the Klondike after an incredible journey across the remote icy landscape. 

The likes of the Rothschilds and the Guggenheims followed, as well as women such as Klondike Kate, many making a fortune running saloons, flophouses and bordellos cum guesthouses that provided lodging, hot meals, dancing partners, cancan dancers and ladies of the night. Kate was a vaudeville star known for flirtatious dancing that held inebriated miners under her spell.

In homage to the pioneering, take-no-prisoners women of the north, I’ve dared myself to not leave Dawson City until I’ve partaken in a famous testing ritual. I’m heading to the Sourdough Saloon to try the legendary Sourtoe Cocktail, which contains a human toe, complete with toenail, preserved in alcohol. 

At one time Dawson City had a population of 40,000 and was larger than both San Francisco and Chicago. Today its population is only 1800, and it’s a national historic site. It looks almost as it did during the gold rush, with boardwalks, saloons, gaming rooms and 19th-century banks with tellers. There are nightly cancan shows and the vaudeville Gaslight Follies at the local music hall, the Palace Grand Theatre. It’s a bit like stumbling onto a movie set, complete with character actors. 

I find the saloon in the Downtown Hotel, take a deep breath and trudge inside. 

Here at the Sourdough, so the story goes, the custom of the Sourtoe Cocktail began with the preservation of a rum bootlegger’s toe, amputated in the 1920s. The donor got frostbite trying to escape the Mounties barefoot through snow during Prohibition. That it was kept in alcohol almost inevitably led to the test of mettle that is taking a drink containing a shrivelled toe. 

Today’s toe is the bar’s eighth. First pickled in alcohol and then kept in a jar of salt, each blackened digit was amputated for a different reason – mostly frostbite, but also diabetes. One was removed by a mower. Five dollars gets you a cocktail with a floating toe, and a certificate for when the shock of it wears off to say you’ve done the deed.

The ritual has become one of the town’s main tourist attractions, a bit like bungy  jumping in New Zealand. To earn the certificate, your lips have to make contact with the toe. If you think this is too disgusting, wait until you learn that the stock of toes has to be replenished from time to time because people have actually swallowed them. Some even did so deliberately. The Sourtoe Club now advises against making a meal of it. 

A little queasy, I join the small queue of first-time toe-drinkers.

Maybe there are better ways to courageously join the northern pioneering sisterhood? I’ve also booked a light-aircraft flight over Tombstone Territorial Park on the way to the Arctic Circle for the summer solstice, the longest day of the year when the sun never sets. I’m told there’s no airstrip there and we’ll have to land right on the Dempster Highway, where signs warn trucks to keep a lookout for descending planes. 

At the saloon, the clapping and chanting rings in my ears as the line inches forward: “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips have gotta touch the toe.” 

When it’s my turn, someone pushes me forward. It’s too late to back out. Time stands still as I raise the glass to my lips and close my eyes. There’s a slight medicinal odour, I taste salt and a liquor burn, there’s a bump against my mouth – then it’s all over. I’m full of adrenalin as someone shakes my hand. Here’s to you, Diamond Tooth Gertie. I feel like I could land that plane myself.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 14, 2014 as "No time for cold feet".

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Karen Halabi
is the editor of The Luxe Traveller.

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