“Our motto is, ‘Let’s drink champagne and dance on the table,’” says cabin owner Bee Chalmers, about her family’s annual, epic, and action-packed holiday weekend party—a.k.a. the Pacific Island Gong Show.
Gong Show? “The weekend is crazy,” says her husband, Jake. “But it’s controlled chaos.”
This particular brand of controlled chaos—“PIGS” for short—happens every year on an island in B.C.’s Howe Sound. It’s always on the Canada Day long weekend, and it always involves the same group of long-time friends: most of the gang, including Bee and Jake, met 30 years ago at nearby Keats summer camp when they were in their early teens.
“The camp thing—that’s our origin story,” says Jake. But it’s not the reason for PIGS. The party first came about in the summer of 2004, soon after Bee and Jake had purchased their two acres of cottage property, a boat ride across from Bowen Island, the previous fall. “We bought it with all the money we had at the time,” says Jake. “It was a ridiculous thing to do.” Maybe, but immediately throwing a Canada Day celebration, it turns out, was a fantastic thing to do: “We invited our friends, and everyone showed up. We never intended for it to be a ritual,” he says. “But it became that.”
Today, Bee, a photographer, and Jake, who owns a marketing and communications company—plus their three kids, Clara, 15; Sam, 14; and Will, 12—do a lot of entertaining on the island, where they spend all summer. Their 700 sq. ft. Pan-Abode cabin “is almost like a revolving-door hotel with no bills,” says Jake. But the PIGS weekend is the biggest bash of the season; one year more than 40 guests showed up. Over time the party has involved at least some, or even all, of the following: outdoor movies; impromptu dance parties; fireworks; singing; trapping crabs and digging for clams and oysters; fishing; scavenger hunts; campfires; craft-making; a play, complete with programs and costumes; and games, sports, and seven different kinds of water activities, including log-rolling. Plus—and this one is most definitely annual—a talent show. Clara emcees, both kids and adults perform, and “it’s very, very campy,” says Jake.
In case it isn’t yet obvious, “this is very much a family weekend,” says Bee. Many a cottage weekend begins as an adult-oriented event and changes when kids come on the scene, but the PIGS party included babies from the start and evolved the way it did because of them. One year, “there were about 26 or 27 kids,” says Andrea (“Annie”) Rathborne, whose eldest daughter, Sophie, was only a few months old for the first Canada Day weekend. “We were, like, ‘How did we create all these children?!’” And what would they do with them on an island for three days? “The activities have definitely always been kid-driven,” says Bee. (See “Tips Are for Kids,”)
To help keep all parts of the weekend running smoothly, Bee sends out an email in June with an itinerary, a packing list, a meal sign-up schedule, and sleeping arrangement details (see “This Is How They Do It,”). For a long time each family slept as a unit, in tents or in one of two extra cabins on the property. Now, the kids prefer to bunk together. “They’ve known each other since they were born,” says Chris Rathborne, Annie’s husband. “By now they hang out in packs.”
Of course they do. They’re close friends who spend every summer together, just like their parents. “This place has been one of the biggest shapers for them,” says Annie. For everyone. “By now, we have three decades of friendships here. It sees you through a lot. I’m really grateful for that.”
Over 15 years, PIGS has certainly evolved, and grown and shrank, says Bee. “People had babies. People divorced. Some remarried. Some left B.C.” But it’s always been the best kind of Gong Show. “It’s messy and chaotic and loud and absolutely bonkers. But you can either spend the day stressing about the clutter and noise…or you can turn your face to the sun, have a glass of champagne, and dance on the table.”
The simple show stoppers
When there’s a crowd to feed, big-batch dishes with multiple components are more likely to suit all tastes. PIGS families take turns with meals. “One thing I think about when I’m planning,” says guest Annie Rathborne, “is how easy it will be for people to find some aspect of the meal that appeals to them.” A low-country boil fits that bill: Neil and Victoria McPhedran first made one—with corn, sausages, potatoes, prawns, and pink-shelled crab—a few years back, and it was a hit. “Now we do it every year,” says Jake. For a pot, they use a converted beer keg—it can boil a large volume of water. Clean-up is easy. “I just get a big garbage can, gather up the newspaper, and dump it all in.” Then he hoses down the table. The annual breakfast meal—puff pancakes—is also simple and delicious. “It’s one-dish, so it’s not too much mess,” says Bee. “But it looks really cool.”
This is how they do it
Hosting this three-day party “is a bit of work,” admits Jake. “But we really all share the work.”
Step 1 Split up the food. Each family signs up for at least one meal ahead of time, and cooks it for the group. Lunch and dinner on the last day are reserved to use up leftovers. Families bring between-meal snacks for themselves.
Step 2 Split up the cocktails. Jake assigns each family drink supplies: booze, ice, garnishes, syrups. A signature drink is always on the menu; for a number of years, the group has made the Southbay, their version of a Southside, a gin-based drink with mint from Bee’s garden. “We changed the name, since our cabin is located in the south bay of our island,” says Bee. Don’t forget the kids! They get Shirley Temples.
Step 3 Prep ahead—as much as possible. Even if she’s cooking at the end of the weekend, “I take everything with me pre-measured and sorted in containers,” says Annie. This cuts down on food packaging, and therefore, garbage.
Step 4 BYO Fridge. Every family brings large coolers packed with ice. They stay outside the kitchen, in the shade, on a custom-built shelf.
Step 5 Got chores? Let people do what they enjoy. Or at least what they’re good at. “I’m known for washing dishes,” says Chris.
Step 6 Add the special touches. Bee and Jake ceremonially sabre a bottle of champagne when everyone arrives. With an actual sabre. “I suppose a large chef’s knife would work just as well,” says Bee. “Although that’s not nearly as badass.”
Tips are for kids
“Entertaining a large group—from young children to middle-aged adults—is easier in the summer,” says Bee. “But it’s definitely nice to have some activities planned.”
Schedule fun for all ages
Sports Day, with its classic relays and events—three-legged and potato sack races; tug-of-war; egg and spoon; water balloon toss—“is highly anticipated,” says Bee. Even for the adults. “One year I wasn’t going to do it. But everyone was, like, ‘Sports! Day! Sports! Day!’”
Kid-ify where possible
“We’ll go on a group walk of the trails, but organize it as a scavenger hunt for the younger kids,” says Bee. They get an illustrated list of items to find: helicopter seed, clam shell, ant, heart-shaped rock, etc. “It keeps them happy and occupied.”
Let kids come up with their own kid-directed projects. Clara started a multi-age book club; some of the kids put on a spa, and offer foot soaks, head and back rubs, and hot-rock treatments; the older children offer babysitting for $2/hr. “That was definitely popular in the early years,” says Bee.