Though it's below freezing, hundreds of drunk American college students—many without jackets—can be seen wandering the village of Whistler, a ski town in British Columbia, during the nights of Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. It's the kind of cold that makes your hands start to go numb after just a few minutes without gloves, yet it's totally normal to see young women linking arms and wearing miniskirts and high heels with bare legs walking like baby giraffes on the snowy cobblestone streets.
It might not be the typical way to celebrate the American national holiday dedicated to the leader of the Civil Rights movement, but for some sororities and fraternities in the Pacific Northwest, it's a long-running tradition. As an American who relocated to Toronto some time ago, I wanted to find out why so many of my brethren were coming up en masse to Whistler, a ski town known for playing host to celebrities and a disproportionate number of Australians.
"You've got some people in the 19 to 20 range who can't drink legally in their own home states, so they come to Whistler and they can drink… We have extra officers on to keep an eye on that," Steve LeClair of Whistler RCMP told VICE. "Typically, we get some people who are intoxicated in public… We do sometimes have to house them in our cells overnight."
In 2016, the RCMP was called 82 times during MLK weekend in Whistler, up from 71 times the previous year. One long-time resident of the town even raised concern publicly last year over the "uncomfortable" atmosphere of the American long weekend in Whistler.
Whistler residents sometimes lovingly refer to the town, which has a population of just under 10,000, as a "bubble." That nickname may seem innocent enough, but Whistler has a very special, intense brand of party culture that is part of its ecosystem—one that could make your liver quiver in fear once you figure out what you're getting yourself into. When I arrived in the ski town just before MLK weekend, some locals took me under their wings to show me what average weeknights are like for them. Within my first few hours, I witnessed an Australian snorting lines of cocaine, a girl attempting to squeeze period blood out of her vagina onto the floor of a kitchen as a party trick, and drunk people giving each other stick-and-poke tattoos of stars.
People who live in Whistler year-round are of a certain breed. The stamina of some is impressive: nonstop snowboarding, partying, fucking—and in order to sustain all of that, working. When they go out, it's more common to see jeans, hoodies, and toques than the attire that the American students don there on MLK weekend.
"Weekends don't really exist for us," one of my new local pals explained to me dreamily. She was right: Within my first 48 hours in Whistler partying with her group of friends (whom she referred to as her "family"), I had already lost sense of what day it was, and was spending my nights sleeping on a futon with two other people. But once Friday of MLK weekend rolled around, I was brought back to reality.
That first jolt came in the form of seeing a frat dude wearing nothing but a T-shirt, short shorts, and cowboy boots outside in January on Friday night. When I asked him why he chose such attire in this weather, he told me, "I'm just being athletic." Soon, I realized his outfit was a uniform of sorts that a bunch of American guys in the town were wearing.
For a party town to exist, however, it needs a healthy supply of young people to work the nightlife scene. Beyond having to deal with the sometimes ridiculous behaviour of tourists, there's also the fact that Whistler is hella expensive. People who inhabit the ski town love it enough that they're willing to deal with rent prices that rival Canada's most populous cities, as well as precarious living situations—such as having a literal closet as a bedroom or paying to share a bed with a stranger. (While I was there, I even saw multiple Tinder profiles being used to find accommodations.)
And for those Whistler residents working in nightlife, with the appearance of dudes in cowboy boots and shorts, one of the biggest weekends of the year in Whistler had just started.
"It's just hilarious dealing with them because some of the drink orders are so absurd… Everyone wants to do body shots, everyone wants to get on the bar," Scotty Mac, operations manager at MoeJoe's, a Whistler club, told VICE. "Every year, I have to teach hundreds of people how to do a Jagerbomb… You pass it to them, and they're like, 'What do we do?'"
I ended up at another club called Tommy Africa's in Whistler on Saturday night of MLK around 8 PM where go-go dancers wearing American-themed outfits were performing onstage. It was the last stop of an official club crawl where I spoke to a number of Americans who were already well in the bag about how they ended up in Canada for the weekend. As part of the crawl, attendees, including myself, were given nametags with coloured stickers that denoted the following: green= single, red= taken, yellow= hard to get, blue= horny. While wearing my nametag containing both blue and green stickers, I met some pleasant frat bros.
When I asked one if I could interview him about why they were in Whistler, he informed me of the following: "As a millennial, I don't provide my opinion for free." As this dude's friend Greg tried to interrupt him and offered to talk to me, frat bro number one kept inserting himself saying that he was "paying for someone's money for free" by talking to me.
After a clear misunderstanding of how reporting, and perhaps even the world, works, Greg told me, "Asking us why we come here is like asking someone why they go to a certain place for lunch." It was some enlightening dialogue.
A bouncer at Maxx Fish, another Whistler club, named Web Johnson had a more unfortunate run-in than I did with some young, male Americans earlier in the week at another club when he wasn't working. (Though the majority of Americans celebrating MLK in Whistler come for just the weekend, Johnson said that some are there for additional days.)
"There was this group of girls… could tell they were scared; they told me they were creeped out by this group of guys… I got the girls in a taxi, they left, and the guys surrounded me saying, 'What the fuck? You cock-blocked us!' Next thing I know, one of them punches me in the face," Johnson told me, pointing to a mark left on his cheek from the incident. He said that two of the men were wearing University of Washington gear. "[MLK weekend] is a lot of fun if you have the right mentality, but it's just hectic," Johnson said.
Later on Saturday night after my rude frat bro incident, I spoke to a group of sorority girls who actually treated me like I was a real human being. As I sat down at their table littered with vodka-crans at the club, I asked a woman named Rachel, who was in Whistler for her second MLK weekend, what her friend's blue drink was. She offered me a sip and, just as she promised, it tasted "like blue!" Finally, I had found someone to explain the American invasion Whistler experiences every year in their own words.
"I don't really know how it originated, but it started with University of Washington, there's kids from University of Oregon, OSU, some California schools… I think that word kind of spread, and now it's a big college weekend," Rachel, a 20-year-old Alpha Chi Omega, told me. "I feel like it's mostly the Greek system."
Another American woman I spoke to that night, Isabelle, 19, from Oregon, compared the party scene in Whistler to that of Mexico. "We've obviously picked here because the 19 drinking age, so it kind of feels like you're 21… I do ski, but I wanted to save my money for the drinks." At some point, I brought up the topic of Americans who want to move to Canada due to the Trump presidency, to which Isabelle responded: "I think it's all bullshit. If we're getting into politics: I'm for Trump."
Myself being an American who relocated to Canada years ago partially because I disagreed with my home country's politics, I began to grow weary at some point after that conversation, but powered on. Here are some of my other highlights of the weekend: watching frat dudes choke each other out in a club seemingly for fun; having a dude follow me around a club over the course of an hour tapping me on the shoulder repetitively as a childish means of flirting; witnessing drunk girls crying in various club bathrooms. Truly, the most fitting description for MLK weekend in Whistler is this: a travelling frat party.
On the morning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday in Whistler, frozen splatters of puke dotted snow piles around the village as some college students took their final walks of shame of the weekend in mini dresses and thigh-high boots. There were lost IDs, lost jackets, lost credit cards. But later that day, most Americans would take their several-hours-long bus rides back south of the border, allowing the bubble to return to its former self.
Though the tradition of thousands of American college students coming to Whistler once a year can upset equilibrium and cause mayhem at odds with the type of partying residents are accustomed to, it's all ultimately part of the strange ecosystem that is Whistler. "Everyone takes the piss out of it, locals especially," Scotty Mac said. "But to be honest, I love it—they're a fun crowd to deal with."
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