Pin this image Dawson City’s Downtown Hotel is the home of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club, a 40-year-old drinking game with a human toe. (John Lee)
After a lucky 1896 panning discovery ignited the Klondike Gold Rush in Canada’s Yukon Territory, thousands of nugget-eyed North Americans stampeded in for a slice of golden pie.
Most remained empty-handed, but the influx triggered rapid development – especially in remote Dawson City, a town close to the original find and just 105km from the Alaskan border. Raucous saloons, gambling dens and houses of ill repute sprang up, quickly transforming the fur traders’ bolt-hole into a 30,000-strong boomtown.
But once the easy gold was played out, this outback city’s fortunes sank faster than a pyrite bolder. After a few years, the population dropped below 5000 and its empty clapboard buildings began to warp and fade.
Fast-forward to today and the dirt roads of Dawson are now a National Historic Site, populated by around 1300 artsy locals and transient tree-planters – many of whom still take the time to pan for gold in the hills. Charming visitors with its heritage buildings and authentic frontier town ambiance, one of Dawson’s main attractions is its tasty round of old-school, character-packed watering holes.
From grungy dive bars to a wood-floored casino where dancing girls and Yukon Gold ale go hand-in-hand, a night out in Dawson – where the summer sun sets as late as 1am – is a glimpse of the days when sourdoughs (the nickname for locals that stems from the sourdough bread old-time prospectors kept in their cabins) celebrated their glittering discoveries with a drink or three.
Toeing the line
The first stop for many is the swing-doored Sourdough Saloon, a cosy, flock-wallpapered tavern with an ever-busy pool table in the red-painted Downtown Hotel. The saloon’s main lure is the Sourtoe Cocktail Club, a 40-year-old drinking game.
You buy your tipple (usually a shot of Yukon Jack whisky), sit at a table before a captain-hatted attendant then pay five Canadian dollars to have a real, salt-preserved human toe dropped in your glass.
The original toe, reputedly a frostbitten digit self-amputated by a 1920s gold miner, was found in an abandoned cabin by eccentric Dawson sourdough Dick Stevenson, who created the legendary drink in 1973. Due to theft, damage -- and an occasional swallowing -- it has been replaced at least seven times over the years with donated toes, including one from an American who severed his during a lawnmower accident. According to the bar, there is a backlog of replacement offers from around the world.
Knocking it back, you have to let the gnarly, leather-brown digit touch your lips. That makes you a member of the 44,000-strong club – and you receive a certificate (and possibly an involuntary gag reflex) to prove it.
One block away, the Midnight Sun Hotel is popular with hard-drinking Dawsonites. There are two bars here: a sweaty live music joint and a tin-ceilinged lounge lined with vinyl chairs, sticky tables and – on some nights – a crowd of regulars warbling karaoke soft rock of indeterminate vintage.
To make instant friends in the Midnight Sun’s lounge, ring the bell attached to the bar – it means you will be buying a round for everyone. The rule, stemming from the days when miners celebrated their gold discoveries, applies to any tavern with a bell in Dawson.
If you inadvertently nudge it and need to make a quick escape, the paint-peeled Westminster Hotel is a short sprint away. Also a double-room dive, the locals call its tavern bar the Snake Pit and its lounge bar the Arm Pit – with the low-ceilinged, fairy light-strewn latter recommended for its regular live music.
Yukon bands like the Pointer Brothers typically perform behind the wooden hitching rail, but the paintings studding the cabin-like walls are almost as entertaining There are naïve portraits of locals and world leaders, plus an infamously naughty Canadian Mountie action scene that has most snickering into their libations.
Classing it up
Dawson is not only about boozy dive bars. Decade-old Bombay Peggy’s is for those preferring a civilized sip. Named after an infamous Gold Rush madam – check out the photo of her above the bar scandalously dressed in slacks – it is the kind of bright, convivial pub found in many North American neighbourhoods.
The full Yukon Brewing beer roster, brewed in capital city Whitehorse, is available, and the Lead Dog Olde English Ale is recommended. But Peggy’s specialises in well-executed cocktails with racy names like Easy Lai, made of passion fruit liqueur, coconut rum and pineapple juice and Brazen Hussy, concocted with gin, triple sec, cranberry juice and grapefruit juice.
Like several Dawson bars, Peggy’s closes in winter when temperatures shiver down to -30C. But regulars have developed a handy way to stay warm: on winter Friday nights, a different house each week hosts a party under the Bombay banner, and everyone drops by with booze and food to keep things rolling.
Some Dawson bars are open year-round, including the one inside Canada’s oldest legal casino. Run as a not-for-profit by the local tourism association (proceeds are re-invested in the community), Diamond Tooth Gerties is named after another of the Gold Rush’s infamous working ladies – and yes, she had a diamond wedged between her two front teeth.
As the heart of Dawson nightlife, the small, friendly casino is a million miles from soulless Las Vegas gambling factories. Here, the slot machines and poker tables take second place to a large wooden stage where chorus girls prance behind a femme fatal singer who works the room, mussing the hair of seated, slack-jawed males.
Like stepping into a classy Wild West saloon, Gerties’ burlesque-lite show runs three times a night in summer; late-carousing locals prefer the midnight performance. It is the perfect way to remember Dawson’s gritty but party-loving good old days.