No shit there I was staring out of the passenger window down at tops of hundred-foot trees. Staring down into a ravine that had no bottom. I was in the middle nowhere on the side of a forgotten West Virginia mountain. We were in a teetering pickup truck with four people in it with six boats stacked on top of it. Oh I almost forgot there were two more people wedged in the bed of the truck or maybe they were on top of the boats. That fact escaped me because I had pressing matters to contend with; like I could not help wonder how they would ever be able to evacuate if anyone of us were even lucky enough to survive the catastrophic event of the truck losing its grip. The gravity of the situation brought me back from that daydream. As the front tires started to slide down a wash-out that the cut the road in half while the rear tires were perched behind boulders. As I replayed in my head the driver ‘s comment ten minutes early saying “I haven’t drove a stick in awhile but I should be find,” I sat back and though well if our cameras survived the fire ball at least whoever found them would of known we had a good time that Friday morning. Though the camera could never capture the best moments. Oh a good time indeed.
Early in the evening the night before, the Thursday night before Cheat Fest we were wondering what we were going to run, that classic talk around the campfire. The first thing came to mind of some was Wonder Falls on the Lower Big Sand. I remember seeing a picture of one Dave Meister running the majestic site. It looked magnificent. As quickly as the idea was presented, that was about how long it took to confirm the agenda. While waiting for the rest of our friends to show up for the Cheatfest weekend we would do a quick run on the Lower Big Sandy. That Thursday night I could not sleep. I kept thinking about the drop and how to land it well. I never even did a five foot drop let alone huck an eighteen-footer on a creek I never even seen before. The next morning, I was all jammed up. I thought about how people blown out their shoulder or mauled their face. Everyone assured me I would be fine, it was in my skill set and that there were little consequences except one Dave Bassage who comically alluded to, oh yeah there are no consequences as long if you do every right. Soon I talked myself into thinking the idea of running the falls was for the absurd. It was something kids do, not an adult who had logic and responsibilities.
We all left camp that Friday morning and piled in our shuttle vehicles. As we approached the Lower Big Sandy put-in we started seeing people carrying their boats a mile away from put-in. I though “how bad can these roads be?” I soon found out while I was pushing a Subaru’s fourth tire back onto the road. Sketchy…very sketchy. Well after the adventure of setting shuttle I soon found myself on the Lower Big Sandy. I was told it like the Lehigh’s No Way rapid…ummm, yeah not quite. As I paddled there was carnage everywhere. A couple interesting swims in our group did not help my nerves which were already shot.
Then I saw the entrance of Wonder Falls from my boat, all it really was from that angle was a disquieting horizon line. My fear crept up my spine like a chill on a lonely night that allows one to believe in ghost. I saw people disappearing over it like lemmings falling off a cliff into an abyss. I also saw two portages, people walking around the falls on river left. I thought to myself what did I get myself into? I wasn’t sure if I should even scout it, I knew the line, there was no reason to scout it. But I had to see it, maybe I would see something that would help me make a convincing prevaricated decision. Next, I watched two friends succeed but then I saw a third who got worked so bad I almost put down my camera for rope. I was so on edge, nervous as timid fawn taking his first steps in an overwhelming unknown world. I was on the bubble, what to do, what to do. I developed penty of good reasons not to do it. I waited for everyone else to go then as my friends waited for my final decision I thought now or never. I reminded myself that those who define the edge only do so by going over it. I don’t even remember putting on my skirt but I do remember the reassuring smile of my friends faces. I ferried from river right to the line on river left. I caught an eddie above the drop and then policed my line. I couldn’t properly peel because my paddle was scraping. I was hung up on something, maybe it was my nerves or maybe it was the rocks or maybe it was both. I worked my way out into the current and then I crossed that barrier; that definitive moment of when there was no going back. The focus on the task at hand calmly entered my mind and pushed everything else aside. No place to eddie out, I was going over these falls one way or the other. So I got aggressive, I planned out my strokes in my head (especially concerned with the one that would be my last.) I was committed to my line now, no more foreign thoughts. All of life’s irrelevancies and contradictions no longer existed. The fact that I was petrified of heights had no room in my mindscape. With a couple moves I reached the lip. There are a places in time when you need to let go and times when you need to hold on and then there are times when you should just get lost in a moment, this was all three of those moments wrapped up in one. As the everlasting moment passed I rose out of the foam like a phoenix out of the ashes. I was revitalized, rejuvenated and reborn. All the overwhelming fears I had now were replaced with adrenaline and euphoria. Shouting at the top of my lungs I was victorious. As my arms were raised in triumph I was not only embraced by mother Earth but also by who supported me every step along the way. I was just not only the victor in the arena; I was one with the arena. I felt vindication. All those pool sessions in the dead of winter, and dam sessions on Friday afternoon all were worth it.
Now how does this story go along with the “mental game.” Well lets take a look at what academic research has to offer. What would researchers have to say about my exciting adventure. Researchers suggest such emotions that I just described are being recognized as an essential aspect of the essence of human behavior. Our moods and emotions are significantly prevalent and relevant products of leisure activity. The optimal experiences or “flow” one feels is a new subject that has been receiving more attention in the past decade in regards to human recreation. Flow or optimal experience is when the beholder’s attention is totally absorbed by the current activity. Undivided attention is at the core of optimal experiences (Jones, C. D., Hollenhorst, S. J., Perna, F., & Selin, S. 2000). Many people have experienced the suspension of time and complete absorption during this phenomenon called flow theory. Although flow can occur in many activities, it is most frequent in high risk human behavior, such as whitewater kayaking. In the past decade researchers have been trying to identify the components and understand the essence of optimal experiences by studying high risk leisure activities such as whitewater kayaking. Flow theory was established as the state of being determined by a balance of challenge and skills without any indication of anxiety, boredom or worry. Participants in studies report deep inner transformations that influence their world views, meaningfulness, and ‘feelings of coming home.’ It was also noted that there was authentic integration present, as well as, a freedom beyond the socio-cultural constrictions that was described as a relaxation from mental chatter. Participants also describe moments of ineffability that include enhanced sensory, mental and physical prowess. Perceptions of time slowing, returning to a primal state, feelings of floating and flying and a deep intimacy with the natural world have also been noted in research.
Extreme athletes have been known to actually have positive psychological changes through their phenomenons. Brymer & Oades studied BASE jumpers, extreme skiers, big wave surfers, and whitewater kayakers. They concluded that the idea that these individuals just take unnecessary risks was over simplified. The stereo type was taurine-fueled teenagers was disproven. The positive constructs that were noted were increased courage and humility. Humility was improved because the individual was able to better understand that there were larger concerns than the individual themselves. The courage was improved because the people were facing their fears and practicing the ability of overcoming the overwhelming fear of harm and possibly death. These positive constructs were a result of the individuals receiving an enhanced person’s sense of well being. Maslow was noted in the Brymer and Oades study that such an experience can remove the fear of one’s death and can trigger a desire to live every moment of every day. Also was noted was Wong who argued that by facing one’s own fear of death and possibly death itself, a person can become fully self aware and their life can take on a new profound meaning (Brymer & Oades, 2009).
Researchers Brymer and Gray reported the extreme athlete contend that a deeper relationship with nature is developed during outdoor adventures. The researchers saw the individual with nature as a ‘dance’ between partners, the river was not just a setting and the river was just not a resource. The extreme sports facilitated in nature a deeper understanding of the self in the environment: and nature becomes a “source of innate power and personal meaning” (Brymer and Gray, 2009, pg 135). Many peoples’ view of nature see it as something separate from humanity, something inanimate, a resource, obstacle or playground, a machine. However, by the extreme athlete utilizing nature, it could be seen as a “sanctuary, sacred reservoir or natural reserve” (Brymer and Gray, 2009, pg 136). They concluded that these accounts are ‘deeply embedded in human mythology and may be experienced as a spiritual awakening.’ Extreme sports can deliver the necessary feelings of connectedness and intimacy, which will lead to the desirable eco-centric perspective. The participants shared their positive life experiences included an acceptance that the natural world is more powerful than humanity. Eventually, participants come to see nature as a partner and develop a sense of harmony and deep connection, and undergo a transformation. They were surprised by intimate relationship to the natural world and the unimportance of risk (Brymer and Gray, 2009).
According to researchers being in a natural environment does not necessitate particular emotions, we attribute symbolic meaning to being outdoors. This symbolic meaning created by the natural environment has seen to create a deeper reality perceived by people running rivers ( Holyfield & Jonas, 2003.) The watery rites of passage has generated psychological transformations. “Kayaking has changed my life, it has taught me who I am. Going to rivers changes who you are in a positive way.” (Brymer and Gray 2009, pg 118). These transformation experiences spill over into life in general. River running is one activity that provides participants with opportunities to achieve a desired identity through social cues. The emotions one feels while river running can provide a road map for the construction and preservation of the self. The social identities an adventurer gains attempts to remedy the contradictions of everyday life (Breton, 2000). The paddler also has an opportunity to enhance the perceived risk among novices while demonstrating their competence and fearlessness ( Holyfield & Jonas, 2003.) The river runner’s identity free from organizational constraints and often express their identity through behavior that is deemed defiant of the river (Holyfield & Jonas, 2003). Extreme athletes are “extremely autonomous people who march to their own beat…they have very few real friends but ones they do have, they would trust with their lives, and quite frankly they often do just that (Brymer and Gray, 2009, pg 119).
So what does all this mean? I am not quite sure; that is up to you the reader to determine. The reader must decide who is the more content man, he who has braved going over the edge and danced in the storm of life or he who has stayed securely on shelf and merely existed? To those who chase after optimal experience maybe it is no different than a man who steps on to a ship that is certain to sink. I would like to think otherwise and that the mental game we hold on to, that some call “the flow,” can only be defined by those experienced it.