Throughout their on-again, off-again 30-year history, the Yukon’s Sourdough Sams have earned a reputation for their near-legendary drinking ability.
However, the annual contest is much more than an elabourate weeklong bender. Just ask any Sam.
“The myth is that it’s about drinking – it’s not about drinking,” said Gerald Budzinski, a three-time Sam competitor. “The truth is, it’s about getting the cojones to get on stage. And that does take a few drinks to happen.”
Evening gown and bikini competitions, kielbasa eating contests, dance fever nights and male stripteases are rarely explored with full sobriety.
Sunday night did put one Sam in the RCMP drunk tank, but the competitors generally maintain their composure amid fast flowing whiskey, beer and the occasional tequila shot.
“I don’t want to be a drunken fool on stage where everybody can see me – plus, I’ve got to work in the morning,” said Ryan Carveth, a first-time Sam.
Far from simply showcasing their Herculanean alcohol tolerance, the Sams are role models of versatility, on and offstage.
Atop the Coaster’s Stage, they are the personification of unhinged frontier carousing. When day breaks, the Sams throw off their furs and fake beards and return to the offices and workplaces of 21st-century Yukon as realtors, legal assistants and the like.
For many, the Sam competition is a respite from the white-collar world of modern Whitehorse, a chance to revisit the Klondike’s unwashed origins.
“I just figured ‘how Yukon can I really be?,’ I’ve lived here my whole life and I know all the good stories,” said Carveth .
In a tastefully assembled get-up of flannel and fur, Carveth portrayed the Mad Trapper, a character based on the real-life figure of Albert Johnson, a mysterious 1930s fugitive who eluded the RCMP during a 47-day manhunt through the wilderness that ended only after Johnson succumbed to nine close-range bullet wounds.
Budzinski portrayed a Rasta figure, wearing a dreaded wig, knit cap and brown face paint.
“It doesn’t really matter what character you have, because the more extreme it is, the more successful it is,” he said.
Many other Sams portrayed variations on the Klondike’s gap-toothed, bearded unwashed archetype.
Cletus T. is serving his sixth run as a Sam, clad in red pyjamas, a woolly beard and a wide-brimmed bush hat.
The concept of the Sams, who originated in the early 1980s, hearkened back to the era when the towns and cities of the Yukon were assailed with newly moneyed, unwashed miners fresh from the gold fields.
“Guys would come in, cash in their gold, and they’d spend it on booze and women,” said Carveth. “But that’s not what it’s all about, though, it’s about having a good time.”
It’s also a critical fundraiser for Rendezvous, with events in Shipyards Park relying heavily on money raised by Sam events.
As the Sams finished off their Monday night karaoke competition with a rousing group rendition of Garth Brooks’ Friends in Low Places, a stoic group of Yukon Queens looked on. As always, they were bastions of sobriety and respectability in a bar gone mad.
“We’re not allowed to drink or swear or show any skin; there’s a whole list of rules that we have to follow that the Sams don’t,” said Natasha Dougherty, Miss Westmark Hotels.
“The Queen competition is pretty much the exact opposite of the Sam competition,” said Megan Ennis, Miss Main St. Flowers and Gifts.
While the Sams prove their mettle at striptease, dancing and karaoke, the Queens must demonstrate their prowess at public speaking, proper dining etiquette and other facets of prim and proper women.
The gender divide is clear, but it’s all about casting a glance back to the Gold Rush, said Ennis.
“It’s fun, it’s just a different type of fun,” she said.
Of course, these girdled, feathered women are also the financial backbone of Rendezvous.
“Queen’s tickets are the biggest funder of Rendezvous,” said Dougherty.
Later in the evening, a Sam stripped down to nothing but a two-piece Spandex. Another Sam picked him up “over-the-threshhold” style and paraded him around the bar before dropping is semi-clad form amidst the assembled Queens.
Naturally, once the Queens have completed their coronation, they collectively explode into an evening of carousing debauchery to rival even the most noteworthy Sam.
Although the Sams face each other nightly as fierce opponents, they share a unique backstage camaraderie, often seen sharing in the age-old Sam toast, “Once a Sam, always a Sam!”
Of course, fun and camaraderie are really the only prizes in the Sams’ quest for ultimate northern masculinity.
“For enjoyment factor, you really can’t top it; any Sam who’s done it, they’ll tell you the same thing,” said Budzinski.
“You’ve got to do this show to really understand how much fun it is,” he said.
The contest’s true prize of a well-worn truck often fails to meet expectations for adequate mobility.
In 2008, the truck was re-donated by a former Sam, mostly because it cost more to keep going than it was worth.
“It took four litres of antifreeze at Whitehorse Elementary just to get it going again,” said Budzinski of the truck’s behaviour at last year’s Rendezvous parade.
Contact Tristin Hopper