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THE SOURTOE COCKTAIL
Dawson City, Yukon Territory
I turn it in my hand, and all I can think is that someone, somewhere, really knows how to manufacture an incredibly realistic-looking human toe. The next night in Dick's home, over a wonderful home-cooked meal of marinated moose meat prepared by his wife Joanne for myself and two of my daughters Becky and Sarah, Dick shrugs and shakes his head as if to say, 'I've gone through this soooo many times...'
"It's real," he says.
Somehow the fact that this has ended up in Dick Van Nostrands Downtown Hotel is not incongruous. The first time I met Dick he had on an apron, which every time he lifted it up, ostensibly to wipe his hands, a ten-inch red dildo rose from underneath. He was chasing one of his waitresses around the barroom with it. At dinner I told of my group of friends that fly off each year to various locations around the US to hear country music performers; he invites me to attend his next annual Substance Abuse Weekend. For a moment I suspect it is something akin to AA, until it becomes clear it is strictly a weekend during which Dick and his buddies Abuse Substances. Dick proves an exceptional storyteller, with the most precise use of profanity I have ever heard. And he explains the history of the Sourtoe Cocktail to me and my girls.
In 1973 a character known as Captain Dick Stevenson (AKA Capt. River Rat) bought a cabin outside of Dawson that was known to have the pickled remains of the owner's amputated toe inside. Over a long night of drinks in Dawson, Capt. Dick decided to concoct a most unusual drink where the pickled toe is dropped into a glass, and the shot is downed to their newly penned mantra: Do it fast or do it slow, but your lips must touch the toe. Not surprisingly, the Sourtoe Cocktail caught on in Dawson City, the Eldorado Hotel bar becoming the home of the Toe.
Since then Sourtoe infamy has spread across the far North, with a bizarre history. Toe #1 was swallowed by a local placer miner named Garry Younger when he tried to do his thirteenth toe shot in a row. Toe #2 was somehow lost during the restoration of the Eldorado Hotel. Toe #3 was stolen by a group of soldiers who took it back with them to London, Ontario. When word got out that the soldiers were bragging of their heist, the toe was returned, but not before Capt. Dick had acquired another toe. Toe #4 was swallowed intentionally by a baseball player from Inuvik, who was fooled into thinking he Had to swallow it in order to receive his Sourtoe Certificate.
When Capt. Dick retired from the Toe in the early nineties, over 10,000 people had 'done the toe,' including Audrey McLaughlin, Yukon MP, and writers Dick North and Pierre Burton (three time member!). Capt. Dick has claimed that Canadian Premier Jean Chretian once had the opportunity while he was Minister of Northern affairs, but had 'wimped out.'
"I lease the toe from Stevenson, Dick told me. He's living in Whitehorse now, I lease it for $5000 Canadian a year. It's great business, you should see the bar, lined with people doing the toe, or watching. It's good business. I might even go on the David Letterman show. It won't be hard, I'll just practice up a bit, and do the toe, of course."
"There's got to be something illegal about this," I said.
"There's nothing illegal about it, except you can't mail human body parts over international boundaries." Dick shrugs. "But I don't do it, they're sent to me!"
Two evenings later my daughters and I are back from a harrowing escape from the newly fallen snow on the Dempster Highway. Relaxing in the Downtown Hotels barroom, bartender Mike Kucway smirks as I sit with one Pat Roach of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, up from Whitehorse on business. Our discussion turns to The Toe, and a gentleman named Bruce Cley sitting next to me overhears and offers, "I once did the Toe in the 80's, but won't do it ever again."
"Because it's kind of disgusting."
The best story about it, Mike says, is one night Capt. River Rat was doing the Toe for some guy who popped out his glass eye, and dropped it in the Captains drink. So one guy did the Toe, while the Captain did the eye!
And you know how these evenings go. With the passage of a bit more time quite a bit more time sitting at Dick Van Nostrand's bar, the decision is made.
"Let's do the Toe!"
Bartender Mike nods, goes into the back room and returns with a weathered wooden box about twelve inches long by seven wide, and six deep. He opens the box on the bar before us, and removes a white sea Captain's hat, a worn leather log book, and two glass jars full of salt, containing several human toes. Mike places the hat on his head.
"Why the hat?" I ask.
"Because I'm the Captain here."
He places the containers of salt and toes before us. I pick out the one I had handled, a big toe, the most prominent toe.
"What's your poison?"
Comrade Pat concurs, and Mike pours two shots and dumps the toe into the one in front of me. Sarah blurts, Dont you DARE do it, Dad! If you do, Im telling Mom never to kiss you on the lips again! and flees in horror, while Becky remains in a state of morbid fascination, ready to record the moment on film. Mike reminds us, "Do it fast or do it slow, but the lips must touch the toe." I look at the shot of Jack Daniels with a human toe in it.
Well, what the hell.
I lift the shot glass, tip it up and down the JD, and feel the toe touch my lips. Pat gets the toe into his glass and downs his shot, our fellow patrons cheers serenading the brave new heroes. We enter our names in the Sourtoe log book (I am number 12,174), and Mike writes our names onto our yellow certificates and hands them to us. Among other telling truths the certificate states, "(your name here) drank an authentic Sourtoe Cocktail, thereby following in the wayward even staggering footsteps of Capt. River Rat, and has proven to be a person capable of almost anything..."
I shake my head at the scene.
"Pretty crazy, eh?" I say, and MIke looks at me, having caught on my utterance of our northern neighbors common expression, 'eh'. He stands before me in his Capt. River Rat hat, a jar of salted human toes in each of his hands.
"Hey," he says, "are you making fun of Canadians?"