One of the first things I learned about whitewater kayaking culture when I started to get into the sport 5 years ago was that if you swim on the river, tradition compels you to drink a beer out of your bootie/paddling shoe (or your primary rescuer’s bootie, depending on the crew and the amount of peer pressure applied) at the takeout.

As a beginner, I swam often and it was rarely suggested that I do such a thing, and I thought of it as another way for kayaker bros to prove their manliness after showing weakness on the river. Also, to finance my paddling habit I work in public health, and the idea of mixing sun-warmed Coors Light with likely contaminated river water and foot funk (mine or otherwise) was generally horrifying to me.

Over the last few years, as my kayaking skills have progressed and my swims have occurred less frequently, I have come to understand at least one reason why some kayakers choose to adhere to it. I’ve actually come to embrace bootie beer culture myself — FOR myself– as an act of forgiveness and letting go of post-performance anxiety. 

My closest paddling friends and I have an unspoken agreement that each of us is amenable to being cajoled into doing a bootie beer after a swim. Pro tip: low profile shoes like the Astral Loyak seem to retain less foot funk than a traditional river bootie, and for those of us who lost the ability to successfully chug an entire beer by our mid-twenties, there is a greater chance of “accidental” beer spillage out of the sides of the shoe. I swear it’s not cheating, I’m doing my best! 

However, I don’t assume everyone I paddle with would appreciate being pressured to perpetuate this weird cultural pastime. Many people I know don’t drink alcohol, many others are absolutely disgusted (rightfully so) by the concept, and many see it as an unnecessary act of humiliation at the hands of others rather than as one’s own form of penance.

But for me, that’s what the bootie beer symbolizes: an act of penance to “settle up” with the river goddesses. As a lifelong competitor in a variety of sports, I have a tendency to be extremely hard on myself. I like being good at things! I like winning! I like constant improvement! Like many sports, kayaking requires a combination of physical skill and mental toughness. To build my own mental toughness, I have to let go of my mistakes, which isn’t always easy. A swim can get in my head and kill my confidence in an instant. Thankfully, I haven’t had any extremely “close calls” in kayaking, but over the years I have swum (a lot). I have had swims in places where there was little room for error and I messed up a single paddle stroke, and I’ve also had swims in man-made playparks where I missed my roll three times in a row. Each time, my friends have helped me, chased whatever gear I sent floating down the river alone after me, and given me words of encouragement when I got back in my boat, humbled and disappointed.

At the takeout after a swim, I used to half-heartedly smile and joke with friends while internally beating myself up. Enter the bootie beer. Drinking beer out of a shoe is absurd and calls attention to the fact that I just swam. However, voluntarily performing this ritual allows me to move past the mental block created by my disappointment in myself and my performance. I messed up! And now I’m choosing to let it go and move forward. Call it penance, call it owning my experience, call it giving my rescuers and friends a good laugh, call it whatever you want. But for me, it works. 

Blog written by Jessie Gunter, president of Colorado Whitewater.

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