American Tourist Eats Pickled Human Toe

Traveling often involves eating things you’d never imagine ingesting at home. Fried tarantulas, grilled bull testicles, ant eggs, fish eyes… the list of unusual foreign foods goes on and on. But one thing we’ve certainly never imagined would make the list is human toes. However, that’s exactly what an American man ate over the weekend, during a peculiar drinking game in Canada.

According to the tradition, you’re expected to plonk the pickled toe into a beer glass filled with a drink of your choosing and ensure the toe touches your lips as you chug down your booze.

The drinking ritual has been taking place at the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City, Yukon for more than 40 years, but few have dared to swallow the toe. Doing so is frowned upon and will earn you a $500 fine. But that didn’t deter the American tourist who gulped the toe down along with his beer on Saturday. The man made off with the pickled digit lodged firmly in his digestive tract before the bar owner could stop him.The bizarre drinking game apparently started back in the 1970s when a local riverboat captain came across a frostbitten toe while cleaning out a ship cabin. It’s thought the toe was already about 50 years old at the time. In the years since, about 60,000 tourists have taken part in the strange custom, with a few brave souls chowing down on the gnarly body part. The first toe was apparently swallowed in 1980 and altogether about 15 toes have been lost or consumed. Where exactly the other 14 toes came from, however, is anyone’s guess!

Packing For Extreme Cold Part II: The Expedition Layer

In Part I of “Packing for Extreme Cold Travel,” I covered the basic stuff you’ll pack for your adventures in crazy cold climates. If you do any winter sports at all, you’ll likely have a lot of this stuff – it’s your basic ski vacation gear.

In this second part, I cover the serious expedition stuff – there’s not much of it, but it makes all the difference between freezing your backside off (just about literally) and having a great time in the minus temperatures.

When I arrived in the far north, it was -40F. Bitter cold. My fingers ached by the time I got to the car, just a hundred yards away.

An epic parka: Mine was a rental provided by Whitehorse expedition gear rental company. I have little use for something this intense in the moderate climates of the Pacific Northwest. But in the deep, deep cold of a Yukon winter, my loaner Canada Goose Resolute Parka was – well, I kind of fell in love with it. I’ve lived in apartments with less storage space than this parka. It took me 45 minutes to “move out” of it after spending a very warm ten days bundled up against the weather.

It’s a lot of work wearing a parka like this – it’s bulky, and I lost my glove liners inside the coat (I’m not kidding) to one of the many pockets. If I did not put my phone or pocket camera in the same place, it could take me ten minutes of exploration to find where, exactly, I’d stowed them.

But it was -40. That’s cold. So I appreciated the fleece-lined pockets, the secure zipper flaps, the slightly long sleeves with ribbed cuffs that I could tuck my hands up into. I liked the coyote fur lined hood – and I could never justify wearing a scrap of fur at home. I’m short, so the coat was almost below my knees, but I wasn’t sorry for the extra length when the wind was blowing. There are mesh pockets designed to hold warmer packs, I used them to store my phone because the battery got zapped of power easily in the cold. And I loved the bright red in the snow; you could locate me in just short of whiteout conditions.

You can spend a pile on a parka like this – over $700.00. Unless you’re planning to do repeated trips in this kind of crazy weather, there’s almost no reason to buy one, but an expedition outfitter will hook you up and that’s worth the money for the warmth.

The biggest boots known to mankind: “I saw that picture of you. What the hell is on your feet? You look like Rocket Boy!” Yup. That’s about right. My Bogs are swell in most conditions, and indeed, they were great for Antarctica, but when I went dogsledding, I was sorry I’d not pulled on the loaner -100 rated boots in my rented kit.

I was surprised, given the bulk, how light my -100s were. They were all insulation with a waterproof exterior. I wouldn’t have wanted to run for the bus in them, but they were fine for shuffling around Dawson City in the deep dry snow, and I wore them snowmobiling and was not sorry. Again, this is the kind of thing you’re not going to own unless you’re living the sub-freezing dream life, so whatever shows up in your rented kit is going to serve you just fine in the interim.

I got a huge laugh out of how out of proportion I’d become between my giant parka and my Frankenstein monster boots, but you know what, I wasn’t cold – not at all.

Packing For Extreme Cold Travel Part 1: The Regular Stuff

“Seriously, you’re going to the Yukon in February? Won’t it be dark all the time? Won’t you FREEZE? I mean, literally FREEZE? You can die if you’re left outside for, like three minutes, right?”

“Yes, seriously. I am going to the Yukon in February. I’m super curious about what it is like to be in a place that far north in the winter. And also, I will be wearing a giant parka. I’ll have loaner gear.”

Sometimes, adventure travel means getting off the grid and diving into the backcountry. Other times, it simply means going to a destination when most don’t. A place like the Yukon – or anywhere in the far northern climates in February is an adventure indeed, and it’s totally doable if you pack the right gear.

For starters, you’re going to have to check a bag.

This isn’t easy for me; I’m a pathologically light traveler. But when your kit requires things like big boots or snow pants, you need more space. Suck it up. Pay the checked bag fee and revel in the fact that you’re not dragging a wheelie bag around the airport for a change. You totally have a free hand for coffee now. Crazy, right?Now, what’s in that bag?

The aforementioned big boots. Okay, you can wear them on the plane, and if your destination isn’t that far away and you don’t mind the hassle of getting in and out of them at the TSA checkpoint, go ahead and do that. But I packed a pair of Bogs (rated to -40F) and they served me well for almost everything I did. (I got mine from a hardware store in Forks, Washington, but you can get them anywhere.)

Loads of serious socks. I’ve got a whole array of performance socks, including some from Dahlgren (in alpaca, they’re super fluffy), Darn Tough Vermont (indeed darn tough, I’ve worn mine for over a year and they are showing very little wear and tear), Fox River (lighter merino), and a mess of other brands. Go with natural fiber blends and drop a little cash. Plus, pack more than you’ll think you need. Changing out your socks mid-day is really helpful towards staying warm. Even in subzero temperatures, your feet can get damp inside your boots. If there’s room, pack two pairs for each day, or be prepared to do some guerilla laundry.

Pro-tip: the crazy, dry climate and overheated hotel rooms mean that your socks totally dry overnight when you wash them in the sink.

The best long underwear you can afford. I’m a devotee of SmartWool (as regular readers will know) but I also recommend Icebreaker, Bergan’s of Norway and Ibex. If you have super sensitive skin, you may want to go with silk instead of merino wool, but I’ve found that the merino works just fine. Silk can be really nice for under jeans because it’s so light, but the extra warmth from wool … oh, it can’t be beat. PolarTec makes some heavy blends, but I prefer as much natural fiber in my kit as possible.

Shopping tip: this stuff is expensive. Places like REI Outlet and Sierra Trading post often have it in their online clearance sections, so go hunting. And really, drop some cash. You won’t regret it. It lasts for a very long time.

A down jacket. That critical poof layer. Loft. Fill. Whatever. All that jargon means that more poof equals more warmth. Maybe you’ll get lucky and have a day or two when the temperatures pop up to a balmy 32F and you can shed the expedition parka (more on this later). Eddie Bauer makes an expedition line – First Ascent – that’s not too pricey, or you can drop some money on Patagonia. The nice thing about down is that it packs down to nearly nothing and you can always find room for it in your bag.

Outer layers that are water and wind proof. A jacket and pants, people. I kind of love my Outdoor Research pants; they’re super light and resist the weather – with long underwear they’re good for down to freezing temps. I have a very nice jacket from Westcomb, or hey, combine the down layer with the weather-proof layer and get a three in one – Columbia does a good job on these, but heads up, they run small.

A staggering amount of moisturizing products for your hair, lips and skin. In the extreme cold, it’s a little hard to stay hydrated for two reasons. The first: you’re just not aware of the dehydrating effects of the weather when it’s cold. You don’t sweat much, and you don’t get the kind of thirsty you get when you bake in the sun. The second: if you’re doing outdoor stuff, you really do not want to expose your more sensitive parts to the weather. You may end up thinking, “It’s okay, I’ll hydrate when we get back to the lodge. For now, I’ll pass on the water.” Your skin will pay. And once you get over the vanity of hat hair, what will really bug you is that your hair feels like straw. Drink up, and toss in the product. We already agreed that you’re checking a bag, so what’s the big deal?

Pro-tip: don’t be an idiot; throw in some sunscreen. You might not feel the sun cooking what little exposed skin you have, but it is, and it’s reflecting off the frozen everything.

A pair of sturdy, waterproof shoes: sometimes, you’re just going to eat in the hotel restaurant and you don’t want to go down there in your giant boots. I packed the admittedly kind of weird looking but totally appropriate Sole Exhale – they’re great on the plane, too.

Your usual travel clothing: odds are, in a place that requires an extreme cold weather kit, you’re going to do fine in jeans and a clean shirt. Throw in a nice sweater if you’ve got room. You’ll need a hat, gloves or mittens, and a scarf or neck gaiter in your pile of accessories. Err on the side of casual, and don’t overdo it; you’re probably going to spend most of your time geared up to the eyeballs in expedition gear.

Which we’ll talk about in Part II: “Packing for Extreme Cold Travel Part II: The Hardcore Stuff

[Photo: The Yukon River near Dawson City. Courtesy the author, Pam Mandel]

Video: Yukon Quest 2012 gets started

This past weekend saw the kickoff of one of the year’s biggest sporting events. No, not the Super Bowl. The 2012 Yukon Quest began. What is Yukon Quest? It’s just your run-of-the-mill 1,000 mile dog sled race from Fairbanks, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. It follows the trail that prospectors took during the gold rush of the 1890s and celebrate the Yukon River, the “highway of the North.” And while the Iditarod may be more well-known, Yukon Quest is considered by many to be the most difficult race in the world. Mushers and their dogs will navigate the frozen wilderness for two weeks and friend-of-Gadling Eva Holland is along for the ride and posting dispatches on her Twitter feed. She passed along this video of the start of the race and we thought we’d share it with you because, well, it’s just plain awesome.

Hiker begins 4700 mile journey around Alaska

Long distance hiking legend Andrew Skurka is off on another adventure, this time taking on a trek through the Alaskan wilderness that will take seven months to complete, and will cover more than 4700 miles. Dubbed the Alaska-Yukon Expedition, the journey will take Skurka through eight national parks, six in the U.S. and two in Canada, while crossing four mountain ranges, and some of the most remote wilderness found anywhere in North America.

Skurka set out from Kotzebue, Alaska a few days back, and will now travel south to the Iditarod Trail, then east to the Alaskan Range and the Lost Coast. From there, it’s on to the Inside Passage, up the Yukon River to the Ogilive and Richardson Mountains, before eventually turning west, and running the length of the Brooks Range, one of the last great wildernesses on Earth. Finally, he’ll return to Kotzebue, completing the circuit and ending the adventure back where he began.

For now, Skurka will be traveling on skis, but much of the journey will be completed on foot and with the use of a packraft, a small, inflatable boat that he can carry with him. For most people, the thought of covering more than 4700 miles through remote backcountry, under your own power, would seem like an insurmountable challenge, but for Skurka, it is just another long hike to add to his resume. In the past, he has hiked both the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, as well as a route from the Atlantic to the Pacific that covered more than 7700 miles. His 6875 mile Great Western Trails Route a few years back also earned him the title of National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.

You’ll be able to follow Skurka’s adventures with weekly updates on the National Geographic Adventure Blog and through his Twitter feed @andrewskurka. If all goes according to plan, he should be finishing up the journey in the early part of October.