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  • Ken Ilgunas

The Toe-Shot

My feet, to put it lightly, are not my most becoming feature. To be forthright, they’re downright hideous.

The bottoms of my big toe and heel are encrusted with a thick layer of orange callous that could outlast most hard cheeses in a cutting contest. My E.T.-like toes—in relation to the rest of my foot—are disproportionately long and apelike. Bespeckled with maroon-colored moles, linty wafers, the occasional fungus, and toe hair that’s so long I can curl it around my finger, my feet—I’m afraid to say—are a mess.

But it isn’t just my feet that gross me out. It’s all feet.

So it may come as a surprise to hear that I traveled hundreds of miles to Dawson City of the Yukon Territories in Canada to drink the infamous “Sour-toe Cocktail,” which is a fancy title for a shot served with an amputated toe.

I was road-tripping with friends Adam and Rebecca last fall, going from Fairbanks, Alaska to Denver, Colorado. Instead of taking the quicker route down the Alcan Highway, we took a detour on the Top-of-the-World Highway to Dawson City, seated next to the Yukon River.

Dawson City was a gold-mining hub a century ago, but now the 1,600 residents make a living almost solely on the 60,000 tourists who annually come to see antiquated buildings (including the cabins of Robert Service and Jack London) and view wildlife on cruise ships to Alaska.

We visited in late September of last year. The frosty chills and sandy-grained snow that blew in our faces were the first signs of cold-hearted winter usurping ephemeral autumn.

It was morning and we were the only tourists in town. In fact, we felt like the only people in town as we walked along sleepy streets with antiquated (though freshly-painted) wood-planked buildings and a paddle-wheel boat that were juxtaposed with reminders of modernity: convenient stores, jewelry shops, stop lights, street signs.

During summers, these streets are bustling with tourists. But now with the tourism season over, the town had entered a state of winter torpor; I couldn’t help but note an eerie, uninviting feel to the place, sort of how I imagine Disneyworld after-hours.

I thought the town’s “old-timey feel” reeked of phoniness. The gold rush-era buildings—the saloons, casinos, and dance halls—seemed ridiculous next to their contemporary counterparts.

These weren’t artifacts of the town’s bygone years. The only reason they were still standing, I thought, was to draw fresh hordes of tourists year after year. These buildings seemed less a celebration of the town’s historical heritage and more a series of props on a grand stage to delude tourists into believing that they were looking at something “real.”

Millions come up to Alaska every year because they believe that the farther they go from home, the more exotic and real their experience will be. We believe that Alaska—that great swathe of land so far north where the tentacles of civilization have yet to reach—is home to foraging grizzlies, desolate vistas, and stalwart mountain men.

Anyone who’s seen the state knows that this is pretty far from the truth. Those who come to Alaska on a plane or a cruise ship or to see one of these hokey gold-mining towns in hopes of having an “authentic experience” are bound to find the same commercialism, industry, and pollution that they

thought they were leaving back home.

But I knew what I was getting into. Hokey or not hokey, I wanted a shot with a toe in it.

We arrived at the Sourdough Saloon sometime before noon. There were a few plaid-clad locals hunched over the bar watching sports on the television. The rest of the place was empty.

Normally, in the heart of the tourist season, the bar’s owner, “Captain Dick,” would come out and deliver some grandiose ceremony with the presentation of the toe. This morning, however, Captain Dick wasn’t in but the waitress, seeking an easy buck (the shots were $10 apiece), went into the back, got the toe, and very unceremoniously plopped it on our table along with a few glasses of Yukon Jack.

It barely looked like a toe. Over time, it had shriveled into a purple nugget of flesh. The nail was crumpled and it smelled salty. It looked more like a grape jelly belly than the storied toe of the Yukon.

When I retell the story of the toe to friends I unknowingly give some ludicrously self-invented fable that I had dreamed up at some point. I’d mention something about a poor gold-miner who was so thirsty for a drink that he cut off a frostbitten toe to win a bet and collect a shot.

I think I opt to tell my version of the story because the truth is far less exciting (though slightly more disturbing).

The truth is—Captain Dick (who gets creepier and creepier the more I read up on him)—was fishing around some old-timer’s cabin where he happened upon a toe in a pickle jar in 1973. For some totally inexplicable reason, he and his buddies decided to start taking shots with it.

That’s it. That’s the whole “legend” of the toe-shot right there.

The story behind the toe (and toes), however, does make things a bit more interesting. The first toe was from the foot of Louie Liken—a trapper and miner who was illegally transporting alcohol into the States during Prohibition. Wary of being caught by Mounties, he raced through a winter storm on dogsled on which he got a nasty case of frostbite and had to sever off a toe.

Unfortunately Louie’s toe isn’t around any longer. As with several subsequent toes, they were swallowed in moments of drunken stupor and good-hearted merriment.

Toe #2 was from a Mrs. Lawrence of Alberta who had her toe amputated because of an “inoperable corn.” Toe #4 was stolen by a big-game hunter from Texas and Toe #8 came with a message that said, “Don’t wear open-toed sandals while mowing the lawn.”

Rumor has it that hundreds of toes and amputated limbs have been sent to the Sourdough Saloon over the years. So I had no idea whose toe was going in my mouth.

The rules were pretty straightforward: “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but the lips have gotta touch the toe.” The waitress also warned that there’d be a steep fine if the toe was imbibed with the alcohol.

As I inspected the toe, I wondered if I should go with the gurgle-method or if I should let it float in my drink like a little seal who’s come up for air.

I put it in my mouth, without reservation, and downed my glass of Yukon Jack while the toe swashed and tumbled around my tongue and the roof of my mouth. It was hard and tasted salty.

I thereafter jumped back and forth between the thoughts: was the $10 I just spent worth it?—and—what’s up the lax Canadian food and health regulations?

Unable to come to a conclusion, we laughed and took pictures with the toe in each of our mouths. The locals at the bar, having seen this thousands of times before, never turned around from their game on TV. In the gift shop there were tee-shirts with toes and chocolate toes for sale.

Our mission complete, we departed Dawson City moments later. I remember wondering: “why the hell did I just do that?” The toe—however real—was still an invented ritual, a piece of fabricated history, and a gimmick created to sucker money out of people like me who were seeking a “cultural” expericence. Really, I could have just dropped a dead mouse, a piece of chalk, a button—anything—in my glass and—because there is no real history or tradition behind the Sour-toe Cocktail—it would have been pretty much the same thing.

No matter how hokey it may seem, and no matter whether people know that this is artifice, pure and simple, they still want to brag about this very bizarre and random feat and retell the story as if they were intrepid explorers rubbing elbows with history and culture.

And that’s the allure of the toe-shot, I think. No matter how much you desconstruct the artificiality of the whole experience, a severed toe in your mouth is a severed toe in your mouth. And there’s something undeniably real about that, regardless of whatever ostentation and fraudulence come with.


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