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Dried and preserved in a far of salt, a human toe is the not-so-secret ingredient of Dawson City's Sour Toe Cocktail. Robin Esrock

Robin Esrock/Robin Esrock

There are always legends to be found in the Yukon: epic poems about desperate miners burning themselves crisp rather than freeze in the unforgiving cold; crafty ladies waiting in whisky-soaked saloons to remove the fortunes from those who struck it rich.

During the Klondike Gold Rush, 40,000 people flocked to Dawson City, which grew into the largest town north of San Francisco and wealthy enough to be known as the Paris of the North. Fools rushed in, but along with the gold, they also rushed out. Dawson City's population numbers only around 1,200, as old barns crackle in winter temperatures that hit below -55 C. But it is here, and only here, where one can drink the legendary Sourtoe Cocktail - a glass of whisky with a real, severed, shrivelled human toe at the bottom.

It started in 1973, when a local eccentric named Captain Dick, a veteran of various dubious ventures, discovered a severed toe in a nearby cabin. Inspired by the fictional ice worm of Gold Rush poems, he plopped it in a glass of champagne and thus invented the Sourtoe Cocktail. Since toes and bubbly don't mix that well, champagne made way for whisky. This bizarre drink fast became a hit in a small town clinging to history as a means of attracting tourists, and soon enough Captain Dick formed the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. For a small donation, anyone was welcome to join. Rules were drawn up for these brave imbibers: The toe must touch the lips (don't swallow the toe!); other drinks can be substituted for whisky, but no sweet liquors, milk or soda pop.

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It didn't take long for the first toe to disappear, in this case down the throat of an overzealous patron. More toes made their way to Dawson City's Downtown Hotel, generously donated by frostbitten amputees or Yukon old-timers. Some were stolen, some disappeared. The eighth donated appendage - apparently the unfortunate victim of a lawn mower accident - found its way into my glass.

The temperature outside was so cold that it had frozen the runway, preventing Air North flights from landing. I had come to the Yukon with hopes of seeing the Northern Lights for the first time, but that natural spectacle was a no-show too. It was one more reason to drink myself warm in the old hotel bar. Sitting at the bar was Captain Al, filling in for Captain Dick, who was wisely vacationing in Mexico.

As the stand-in Toe Captain, Al held the key to a wooden case that sat behind the bar. Inside the case rests a big brown toe, preserved in a jar of salt. It still haunts me, thinking about that "gnarly" looking toe, the way it challenged me to join the club.

I summoned up the courage and paid Al $5 for the membership card, and another $5 for a tumbler of sweet, honey-based Yukon Gold whisky. As he unlocked the case, a big smile revealed Captain Al's stained yellow teeth. He pulled out the digit, as disgusting a thing as I have ever seen, the growth of toenail scraping my glass as it plopped into the yellow liquid.

Brown, shrivelled, with a faint odour of pickle, there was no mistaking it for anything other than what it is. Al told me how Canadian health authorities failed in their attempt to shut down the Sourtoe Cocktail, since the bar doesn't technically sell it, and what people put in their drink once they've bought it is nobody's business.

Although the bar was relatively empty, he sat up straight and announced the ritual with great fanfare: "Drink it fast or drink it slow, but either way, your lips must touch this gnarly looking toe!" At that, I slugged back the whisky and felt the toe touch my lips. I tried to convince myself that it was something else, a piece of wood perhaps, anything but a human toe. I drained the liquid, felt the toe bump my lips, and suppressed the retch forming in my gut.

Congratulations all round, for the Toe Captain confirmed that I was a card-carrying member of the Sourtoe Club. Captain Al, who incidentally is also a teetoetaller (ahem), believes there are more than 60,000 members in the club.

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I'm not sure which is more disturbing: a drink with a severed human toe or the fact that so many people would want to try it.

The Gold Rush is long gone, and nowadays Dawson City's wooden storefront façades resemble a spooky ghost town. Still, legends are alive and well in the Great White North, with the Sourtoe Cocktail one particularly tough act to swallow.

You can join the Sourtoe Club every evening at the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City. Most nights, you'll find a Toe Captain eagerly awaiting you at the bar.

Catch up with Robin on the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels, or at www.robinesrock.com

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