North

Captain Dick Stevenson, inventor of Yukon's infamous 'Sourtoe Cocktail,' has died

Captain Dick Stevenson 'invented' one of the territory's oddest claims to fame — a drink with a severed human toe in it.

'I thought maybe only 10 or 12 people would ever do it,' Stevenson said of cocktail challenge

Captain Dick Stevenson sits at home in Whitehorse in 2017 with some 'Sourtoe Cocktail' memorabilia — old certificates, a registry of club members and a couple of dried human toes. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

Captain Dick Stevenson, a true Yukon original who "invented" one of the territory's oddest claims to fame — a drink with a severed human toe in it — has died.

According to his daughter, Dixie Stevenson, he died in Whitehorse early Thursday morning at age 89.

"I'm pretty sure I'm the only daughter in history that has to, following my dad's will, make sure that his toes are removed and dried and make it up to Dawson City," Dixie said on Thursday.

"As a matter of fact, I'm just on my way downtown. I have to buy containers and pickling salt."

Captain Dick's world-famous invention, the "Sourtoe Cocktail," is nearly 50 years old and continues to draw brave and thirsty crowds to Dawson City's Downtown Hotel.

Order one up and you'll get a shot of whiskey with a gnarled old human toe bobbing in the glass. Let the toe touch your lips and you're in the Sourtoe club — with a certificate to prove it.

The Sourtoe Cocktail consists of a shot of whisky and a dried human toe. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

"I thought maybe only 10 or 12 people would ever do it," Captain Dick Stevenson recalled in a CBC interview in 2017.

To date, more than 90,000 people have kissed the toe.

'We invented the Sourtoe that night'

The story goes that Stevenson bought a cabin outside of Dawson City in the early 1970s, and while cleaning it out found an old pickle jar with a dried-up human toe inside. According to Stevenson, the frostbitten digit had been cut off a prospector decades earlier. 

Later, Stevenson was out drinking with some reporters and they got to talking about that toe.

"We invented the Sourtoe that night," Stevenson recalled in 2017. "But the toe was still out in the cabin. The next morning, the reporters had forgot all about it — but I didn't."

The original cocktail, according to Stevenson, was a beer glass filled with champagne, and of course the toe. The whole idea was a lark, but for whatever reason, it caught on. A tradition was born.

Visitors on bus tours to the Klondike started to ask for them — a refreshment, perhaps, but also a perfect story to share back home about strange things done under the midnight sun.

"There was a lady, she must have been in her 80s, she said, 'I don't mind the toe, but there's no way I could drink a beer glass full of champagne,'" Stevenson recalled in 2017.

"So we changed the rules — drink of your choice, but the toe must touch the lips."

'Genius for ideas'

Stevenson grew up in Nictau, N.B., and always lived a "footloose, fancy-free, very colourful life," his daughter said.

As a young man, he hitchhiked his way across Canada, working on cattle ranches and in logging and mining camps. In 1956, he thumbed his way to Yukon and found a home in the Klondike.

'Live long and prosper,' said Captain Dick Stevenson in 2017. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

He worked as a fish warden in Dawson City for a while, but then became Captain Dick when he bought a boat and began offering tours on the Yukon River. He did that until his retirement. 

Artist Jim Robb — another beloved Yukon character — was a close friend. He called Stevenson "a bit of a genius for ideas."

"He was in love with the Yukon, and his way of promoting the Yukon was really, really unusual," Robb said.

Robb recalls one scheme Stevenson hatched years ago, to hold a "Miss Nude" contest in Dawson City.

"I don't know how it ever turned out, maybe the police raided it or something. But anyway, he tried it. Dick would try anything, you know?"

The Sourtoe Cocktail was his greatest legacy, though. Robb recalls how it put Yukon in major newspapers all over the world. 

The Downtown Hotel in Dawson City is home to the Sourtoe Cocktail. Stevenson said in 2017 that he had willed his two big toes to the hotel. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

"At first, nobody thought much of it, but it turned out to be one of the Yukon's biggest publicity ideas," Robb said.  

Toes in a briefcase

After retirement, Stevenson spent his final years in Whitehorse, often seen cruising downtown on his motorized scooter, wearing his signature captain's hat.

His room at the Macauley Lodge retirement home in 2017 was decorated with memorabilia from his colourful days in the Klondike. Tucked away in a briefcase, he kept an old leather-bound registry of Sourtoe club members along with a couple of dried toes.

He told of how his own big toes would eventually go to the Downtown Hotel.

"They've gotta wait a few years yet," he laughed.

Stevenson is seen at Macauley Lodge in Whitehorse in 2017. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

Dixie said it was her dad's most important wish. She has detailed instructions on how to do it.

"He kept telling me how I'm supposed to dry his toes. So one day I said, 'Dad, you have to come so I can type this out, because I'm not going to remember it,'" she recalled.

"So as morbid as that sounds, this is what I'll be doing for the next few weeks."

She said Stevenson didn't want a funeral or memorial service — he preferred people to do their own thing, and maybe just raise a glass of whisky or Yukon Jack in his honour.

The toe, presumably, is optional.   

Written by Paul Tukker, with files from Dave Croft

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