Klondike Kate's and a Very Sour Toe

Ask anyone in Dawson City where you should eat for dinner, and they will probably say ‘Klondike Kate’s.’  Kate’s, as it is called locally, was established in the early 90’s in a restored gold rush era building.  It was named for a famous and vivacious dancer dubbed ‘Klondike Kate,’ or ‘Queen of the Gold Rush’ in Dawson at the turn of the 20th century.

Klondike Kate’s is full of character and features local ingredients including birch syrup, spruce tips, and wild mushrooms foraged by the chef himself.  We tried several dishes that we enjoyed and several that were quite new to us. 

Our meal took us from smoked arctic char livers with rhubarb compote and crème fraiche to arctic char tacos, maple syrup poutine, birch syrup glazed salmon, and elk and blueberry sausage with spruce tip aioli.  Their menu was eclectic and interesting, and everything we had was excellent.

From Kate’s we went to the Downtown Hotel and partook in perhaps the most essential Dawson experience: the sour toe cocktail.  This is where you put a real human toe, preserved in alcohol and stored in rock salt, into an alcoholic beverage of your choosing. 


Naturally, I was a bit squeamish at the thought of consuming the toe drink in general, but even more so at the thought of the old, dead toenail that I’d heard was still attached.  I mentioned this particular fear to Jim Kemshead of Travel Yukon and, as if to comfort me, he replied “oh, don’t worry, the toe is completely black.”  Actual horror set in at that moment. 

How the toe cocktail has been so enthusiastically embraced over the years is still a mystery to me, but it’s a tradition that is revered and endeared by residents of Dawson City.  The first toe allegedly belonged to Louie Liken, a trapper and placer miner of the 1920’s.  During an illegal rum run to Alaska, Louie’s foot got wet and his big toe froze.  In order to avoid gangrene and pricey doctors (and encouraged by the over-consumption of alcohol), his brother axed off his big toe and stored it in a jar of alcohol.  Captain Dick Stevenson discovered the preserved toe years later.  The rules of the sour toe cocktail were then conceived, and the commencement of the shot took place in 1973 at the Eldorado Hotel.  Many toes have gone missing—swallowed or lost—throughout the years, and you can read about each toe’s origin and fate here.

A group of us waited in line to consume our toe-stained shot of Yukon Jack whiskey.  Each person hears the rules, “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but the lips have gotta touch the toe”, and are given their beverage to consume in front of the on-looking crowd.

Really, the shot wasn’t that bad—it tasted exactly like whisky.  Once you get over the gnarly, toenail-possessing, tendon-spewing, blackened human toe staring at you, it’s totally palatable.  And now, we get to say that we were the 50,697th and 50,699th people to partake in this lewd, ludicrous and hilarious experience. 


Apples and Cloudberries Across Rivers


Usually when you give someone instructions to your house, it involves a bit of driving.  On roads.  To get to John Lenart’s place, you need to drive, park, get in a canoe, paddle, get out of that canoe, get in another canoe, paddle, and then you’re there.  This delightful journey was one of the many reasons I love the Yukon!


John Lenart and his wife live on a remote, off-the-grid property outside of Dawson City, and run a tree nursery called Klondike Valley Nursery.  Everything they have has been canoed over, a terribly impressive feat considering all that’s there. 


John first bought the property as a young man in 1986, though he wasn’t sure then what he’d do with it.  He first built himself a teepee to live in, and began clearing the thick brush.  Over the years he opened up more and more land, and now has a huge garden, multiple greenhouses, and an entire field dedicated to raising various kinds of coniferous trees and berry bushes. 


One of his most intensive projects is experimenting with varieties of apple trees to see which can survive in the north.  In cooperation with the plant sciences department at the University of Saskatchewan, he’s planted and raised hundreds of varieties, whittling them down to the few that make it through the Yukon’s long, cold winters. 


In addition to planting seedlings and growing trees from seed, John experiments by grafting different varieties onto the same root stalk (tree trunk).  If he grows one variety that survives but the fruit proves to be unpleasant, he simply lops off the branches, and grafts several new varieties onto the strong root stalk!  One of his trees is currently growing at least six different kinds of apples; this technique allows him not only to see which varieties thrive, but also which ones produce the best tasting fruit. 


In his gardens and greenhouses, John and his wife grow huge amounts of fruit and vegetables, including kohlrabi, broccoli, kale, Romanesque cauliflowers (one of my favourites - apparently Dawson is a Mecca for them!) basil, tomatoes, zucchini, grapes, melons, and more.


At the back of the property we learned about haskaps, a sweet berry that’s not native to the north, but has proven to grow well in the Yukon.  John has three or four varieties, each with a slightly different taste (the strongest tasted almost wine-like to me), and all had the characteristic oblong shape and tart skin.  We loved them.


We also were introduced to our first Swiss Stone Pine, the largest pine nut producing tree in the world.  They’re not the highest quality pine nuts, but apparently volume is not a problem! 


Michele and her husband Hector were also thrilled to hear John had discovered cloudberries on his property, an elusive berry that only grows up north. 


They're bright orange, have almost syrup-like juice, and have a very distinct taste, like a tart apple mixed with sharp cheese.  They're widespread in Scandinavia (here's a great Norwegian article about them), and we tasted a Finnish cloudberry liqueur at Miche and Hector's. 


While hunting for cloudberries, we also came across bog cranberries!


In addition to the plants and trees, John and his wife have chickens and a herd of adorable dogs (two of them, Oz and Peggy, accompanied us on our tour). 


Sometimes they’re joined by moose (drawn by the brassicas), and Oz, approximately 1/1000th of their size, runs them off the property quickly. 


John is an unbelievably knowledgeable man, and we listened with rapt attention for the hours we were there. 


He lives quietly in the north, practically unknown, and yet his work is invaluable to issues of Canadian food security in the North.  We felt privileged to learn from him, thankful he didn’t mind how many haskaps we managed to eat, and so pleased to be canoed across two channels, twice.   THANK YOU JOHN!



*This was submitted to the Canadian Food Experience Project to address this month's theme of a regional Canadian Food Hero.