Pilot Journal
Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Flying The Yukon Quest

Airplanes support a 1,000-mile sled-dog race through the toughest terrain on the planet

Flying The Yukon QuestThe sun isn’t up yet and Gary Chamberlain is already on the phone, talking to flight service. The news isn’t good. Circle City, a small checkpoint along the sled-dog race route based on the banks of the Yukon River, is reporting 20 to 30 knots of crosswind with blowing snow, the ceilings are low, and the temperature is stuck at 57 degrees F—below zero.
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“I’m flying down the river at 100 feet, the weather is crappy, and I’m straining to see. Then you look down and see a dog team below, and the musher waves,” says Chamberlain. “I think, man, I want to be him.” For both groups, it’s a chance to remain part of what is fast becoming a vanishing way of life, a cherished lifestyle they refer to as simply “living in the True North.”

For more information about the Yukon Quest, log on to www.yukonquest.com.

The Sourtoe Cocktail
Years ago, there was some conversation at a 100-year-old saloon in Dawson City, Yukon, as to what the exact qualifications of a “sourdough” just might be. The honor of being a “sourdough” isn’t given lightly in the Yukon. While definitions vary among resident authorities, it typically means that you have the skills to at least live in Canada’s Northern Territory year-round, and it may even require you to run a trap line or fight off a grizzly with your bare hands. But as with any attempt to define people, there were those folks who fell into a gray area. A consistent method, a benchmark beyond dispute that established, once and for all, the qualifications for a sourdough, had to determined. Enter the Sourtoe Cocktail, an alcoholic drink served in Dawson’s Sourdough Saloon, which originally contained a frostbitten, snapped-off human toe.

Although that toe was eventually (accidentally) swallowed (as was its replacement), the tradition continues. More than 65,000 people have been inducted into the Sourtoe Cocktail Club, which requires a customer to order a drink, then for an additional five dollars, a human toe is removed from a jar of pickling salt and added to the libation. The toe must touch your lips or mouth as you drink.

Two years ago, the sourtoe disappeared again. Owner Dick Van Austin arranged for an SOS over the Canadian Broadcasting Service. The next day, his phone rang, and the first replacement toe was on its way. Soon, he was getting calls from everybody.

“One lady called from the U.S.,” remembers Van Austin. “Her mother had been a member of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club, and she told her daughter to arrange for her toes to be willed to the saloon.”

Some Canadians in the area also carry a typical donor card with their driver’s license. But in addition to offering their organs for transplant, their card specifically states that their toes be given to the Sourdough Saloon. For more information, see the Website, www.sourtoecocktailclub.com or www.downtownhotel.ca.


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