Editor’s Note: This is the sixth post in the Northern Borders and Boundaries series. You can read other posts in this series here.
In Robert Service’s poem, The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail, Dawson City locals cajole a traveling British Major into drinking a cocktail garnished with fake ice worms (noodles). The Major’s motivation for drinking this cocktail is to become a “bona fide Sourdough,” described as “one who’s seen the Yukon ice go out.” Reports of giant ice worms wriggling from the blue ice can be found throughout Stroller’s Column of the Daily Klondike Nugget in 1901. It is not that ice worms do not exist. However, E.J. “Stroller” White created a fantastical kind of ice worm. For both White and Service, the light-hearted in-joke of the ice worm separates those who have experienced and known the North from those just passing through. In fact, knowledge of the ice worm could mark a “true sourdough” as gaining this knowledge (and its ruse) represented one of many cultural boundaries of insiders and outsiders in the Yukon.
Like the fictional Ice-Worm Cocktail before it, the Sourtoe Cocktail – a garnish of a preserved human toe in alcohol – for the last 48 years has acted as a medium for tourists to engage with Service’s idea of proving that one belongs in Dawson City. In 1973, Captain Dick Stevenson allegedly found a desiccated toe in a cabin once belonging to rumrunner and miner Louie Liken. Stevenson dropped the toe into a shot of Yukon Jack and allowed others to earn membership in the Sourtoe Cocktail Club for a small fee. As displayed in the sourtoe certificate, presented to all those who complete the ritual as proof of their membership into this exclusive club, those who consume this cocktail become “a real Yukon Captain,” and tourist resources claim that the Sourtoe Cocktail is the ritual to become a true Northerner. This post briefly analyzes the heritage that a tourist may engage with when encountering the Sourtoe Cocktail, as well as the effects of that heritage as a catalyst in Dawson City’s cultural development. Moreover, this post shows that in combination with Dawson City’s tableau of early 20th-century life and the northern environment, the Sourtoe Cocktail acts as a boundary-crossing attraction welcoming tourists into systems of power with which the tourist is not only a spectator but active player.
Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee begins with the line “there are strange things done in the midnight sun, by the men who moil for gold,” introducing the idea that Dawson City and the Klondike – lands touched by the midnight sun – are unique and exotic. Indeed, Service’s depictions of the North represent a place where drinking a shot containing a desiccated toe would seem, in an interesting reversal, not that strange. This exoticness is based more on a southern perception of the Yukon than reality. Tourists witness the uniqueness of the North in Dawson City’s 19th-century landmarks and exteriors, mining attractions, modern gold extraction operations, and remote wilderness. As much of Dawson City’s exoticness is tied up to the pursuit of wealth, it doesn’t seem strange to tourists that they can pay money to become of a place, or to become a sourdough. Tourists partaking in the Sourdough Cocktail ritual thus add their number to the mass of “sourdoughs” and, in doing so, change the original definition of the sourdough from those who have wintered in the Yukon to those being able to tour the North and Dawson City as an emblematic frontier city of the North. The sourdough identity continues in Dawson City, but it does not do so unchanged.
Reading through Service’s The Parson’s Son and The Law of the Yukon, frostbite and a loss of limb and digit is entirely emblematic of the toil for gold in the Northern wilderness. After all, the Yukon is no place for the weak or the foolish, as in The Law of the Yukon, the Yukon’s anthropomorphized voice explains why the loss of life and limb is so common: only the strongest of men can conquer the wild. Service makes the point that those worthy of the Yukon and the gold within it are outsiders who conquer the Yukon and become sourdoughs. Gendered discourses of conquering the Yukon through masculinity and strength are alluded to in the sourtoe certificate and advertising, as seen in the image below, as the Sourtoe Cocktail is represented as a test of this manhood. In a 2012/2013 exit survey, most tourists who visited Dawson City identified as male, which along with Service’s poetry, calls attention to the rhetoric of the North serving as a male proving ground. Service’s poem, The Law of the Yukon, aligns manhood with survival and material wealth and appoints men from outside of the North as those with the required manhood to gain riches from the Yukon. Meanwhile, Sourtoe Cocktail promotional materials, such as that in the image below, make this same claim for male tourists today. Those who have the grit to let a toe touch their lips with a swig of liquor might also have the same grit and strength to survive the winter and become a sourdough. Those imbibing the cocktail are face to foot with the Parson’s Son and the dire consequences of being unprepared for or unworthy of the North.
Like those tourists who listen to a tour guide recite Service’s poetry outside of his Dawson cabin, they who touch their lips to the toe and drink the liquor are internalizing Service’s Yukon and the North. Robert Jarvenpa points out that Dawson tourism, a form of “Klondikephilia,” is a local infatuation with the romantic folklore of the Klondike and the maintenance of that past in the upkeep of Dawson City’s 19th-century façade and landmarks into the 21st-century. However, Jarvenpa echoes J.R Lotz’s belief that Dawson City’s tourism is a passive tourist experience. This idea of passive tourism requires that insiders and outsiders become static, with the former performative in their identity and the latter a witness to the identity of this formation. The tourist is an active participant in the Sourtoe Cocktail, not only in the individual consumption of the cocktail but also in the choice to consume and ascribe to the heritage it represents. This heritage is the basis for a community of sourdoughs and blurs the borders separating locals from tourists and insiders from outsiders. I argue that instead of passively accepting the Sourtoe Cocktail as part of a tour, the tourist, in drinking the liquor and touching the toe to their lips, communes with, approves, and reformats the sourdough identity into a global comradeship with the people of Dawson City during the ’98 Gold Rush and today. Dawson City’s 19th-century façade, dredge tailings, Gold Rush-era tourism activities, and surrounding wilderness adds authenticity to the sourdough connection between tourists and locals and between time and place.
With this emerging and global sourdough identity, the tourist crosses borders into something similar to local and thus imagine themselves as part of the history of the Klondike and sustain the idea of the true sourdough, the true Northerner as those outsiders who become insiders. Evidence of the close ties of identity and the heritage of the gold rush past is evident in the numerous and negative responses to the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous dropping the word “Sourdough” from its name, as well as tourists wishing to immortalize themselves in the heritage of the Sourtoe Cocktail, and thus in the heritage of Dawson City, by both consuming the toe and volunteering their own toes to eventually be dropped into a glass of alcohol. The tourists who accept the body (literally) and blood of the Sourtoe Cocktail receive the heritage of Dawson City: both the fascination of gold, the exoticness of the Klondike, and the colonization of the North through the search for material wealth.
While I do not have the space to flesh out the colonial dynamics of this, it is important to note that this history is more complex beyond the tourist experience, as the “Sourtoer” validates and asserts the cultural hegemony of the settler-colonial discourses of the sourdough identity. Tourism maintains power dynamics in the North, where gold rush-based identities like the sourdough offer opportunities to avoid discussions concerning colonization. Jarvenpa believes that Indigenous peoples, such as the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, are continuously placed in subordinate positions as value systems and identities of Gold Rush-era Dawson City are reworked in modern times. If there is some merit in this idea, then Dawson City’s tourism transmits gold rush heritage which sustains 19th-century stories and environments of the Klondike Gold Rush and preserves the notion that those who colonize a place may also become of that place. This Gold Rush heritage smooths over problematic issues concerning the colonizing of the North and services the culture of outsiders. The Sourtoe Cocktail has a special place in serving this heritage, where those who take the drink convey this heritage globally. The intricacies and realities of daily life in a Northern town disappear beneath the veneer of homogenized tourist depictions of Dawson City as both a historical gold capital and a current and booming Gold Rush town.