River Gods and Bootie Beers

Moments before my last swim I perched my kayak atop a slanted rock. As I situated the outfitting my boat slid into the river. I slid in right behind it. I climbed to shore wet and embarrassed, but mostly annoyed. That night I poured a beer into a bootie and drank a pint of ale and sand in an empty apartment. In doing so I fulfilled my debt to the river. I believe a benevolent force takes note of such atonements. Good deeds and reverence appease my fear of a vengeful power exacting justice against an uncaring and brash paddler. Other paddlers may not share such beliefs. I do not ascribe malice to boaters that do not hold these convictions, nor do I think their beliefs lessen the value they give to their environment. I simply argue that the rituals, traditions, and social practices surrounding kayaking foster a community and enrich paddling, regardless of any belief in cosmic justice.

Whitewater lacks a centralized governing body. Organizations like the NBA, NCAA and NFL create rules and monitor their execution in mainstream sports. In many outdoor activities the presence of competitions and high paying sponsorships standardize procedures. In whitewater the commercial and competitive aspects of the sport receive relatively little focus. As a result no organization dictates rules and norms. Misbehaving paddlers face retribution via social interactions with other boaters or divine intervention. We often kayak with our best friends so we tend to avoid direct conflict. Instead the norms are centered on fear of an imbalance in “river karma”. Although rarely verbalized, most boaters will eventually sense a deeper value to social rituals of kayaking than simple tradition. However, progression through the sport has shortened with new technologies and better information. At times we must re-examine the purposes of the subtle traditions of whitewater.

First, rituals provide a reminder of risks. Often mistakes on the river meet little consequence. A swimmer may float unknowingly past a sieve by no act of skill and emerge emboldened. Tragedy lay mere feet away, but such risk is not realized or appreciated. Consequences while paddling are not always proportional to the risks taken. Class III can punish talented boaters for a small mistake. A missed paddle stroke on class V might be forgiven. A high water swim may result in a shaken but unbruised boater. The same swim may next time prove fatal. The bootie beer and associated harassment reminds the paddler of the consequences. The act takes place of punishment dolled out by the rocks of a mountain bike trail or ice on a ski hill. We display to our fellow paddlers that we acknowledge our fallibility, and past greatness does not protect us from mistakes (or drinking from a shoe).

Additionally, a fluency in the rituals of the river signals a knowledge and skill set to other boaters. When I was a raft guide veterans tutored the rookie class while foregoing trips of their own. This was in part to fulfil obligations to those who did the same for them. They demonstrated elegance and style while passing on knowledge of customs and norms. Seasoned guides taught me the movements of currents and the proper dress, diction, and poise with which to approach the river. I could follow their lead confident they would pluck me or my clients from the water. I watched them take risks, knowing that the risk represented a transaction with the river in which they had amassed ample experience and good rapport to trade. Conversely, when I meet a paddler un-caring of the traditions pervasive throughout the community, I question their experience. I do not know whether the presence of a cotton t-shirt is an act of bravado — challenging a known adversary ­— or a sign of ignorance. Cutting line at the local wave or shirking shuttle responsibilities may signify an unwillingness to assist while on the river. By trading in hand signals, favors, and beer fines, I gain confidence in my fellow paddlers. One will never progress through whitewater alone as they might in another activity. We provide deference to the rituals even when we do not see their value. That value lies in the structure it gives to the community.

However, ritual should not go unquestioned. Many traditions may hold the sport back. The hazing of rookie raft guides often includes streaking. The off color jokes that seem harmless at a bar may feel threatening on a three week overnight in the Grand Canyon. Harassment can amplify in the tenuous environments faced while paddling. Due to the loose and decentralized nature of kayaking customs it is easy to call simple bad behavior tradition. It is difficult to distinguish a reckless action from genuine attempts to further the sport. Pressing the boundaries of a gauge or running a rapid that normally demands portage opposes tradition. Progressive paddlers meet these challenges with deliberation and consider the history that drove others to avoid the risks. The choices that lead one to paddle whitewater often coincide with an aversion to authority. The time commitment to acquire even basic skills rarely correlates with traditional employment. Tradition may irritate some of the most talented and dedicated. But paddlers must regard some practices as canon. No one escapes the responsibility of carrying a lifejacket and throw bag.

Inflexibility is also dangerous; the community must allow thoughtful debate. However, showing up to a put-in with blatant disregard for the morays of our community stand as ground for exclusion from a group. Similarly, excessive hazing should not be permitted. Social punishments are necessary to uphold the order that allows mutual trust, but these actions should aim to create a vibrant and supportive community.

Tradition evolves with time. Our rituals form a collective response to individual experiences. Some traditions become outdated, misunderstood, or superfluous. But we cannot face the river alone and without structure. The system that emerged is now perceived in terms of karma. An error invites future retribution if not offered atonement. Bits of the system are imperfect and deserve criticism and change. Those reforms demand careful consideration. We have acquired the knowledge and practices to explore ever increasing remote, difficult, and beautiful rivers. Our rituals have empowered that progression. Some of us may ascribe innate and invaluable meaning to these traditions and couple them with our reverence to the river. Even without such values, we all stand to gain from an appreciation of river karma.

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