When Creeking or Riverruning the purpose of mastering the moves required for any given rapid or drop is to further downstream progress, a means of travel. The drive to progress at creeking and riverrunning comes mostly from the desire to run new rivers. In general the steeper and more challenging the river the more beautiful and rewarding going there becomes. As skills expand so does the number of places that can be accessed and experienced though kayaking. This means of travel and the experiences it allows become the justification and motivation for training.
When playboating a trick is it’s own justification. The mastery of a specific Freestyle trick has little other specific purpose except to perform the trick itself. However, the mastery of the body and boat control needed to perform advanced Freestyle tricks is certainly beneficial to other realms of whitewater paddling. That is why dedicated Creekers and Riverrunners view freestyle as a way in which to train, when challenging downstream paddling opportunities are not available. Mastering Freestyle tricks just to do the trick itself is not their only motive.
Another large part of paddling, downriver and freestyle, is the celebration of the mastery of a skill with fellow paddlers. The props paddlers give each other upon landing a new trick or nailing a hard line come from a shared knowledge of the difficulty of whatever accomplishment has just been made. It is not for mere self-glorification that paddlers look to each other after a challenging situation has been completed. Weather at the bottom of a drop or after landing a huge trick, paddlers want to make sure our friends saw what just happened (and hopefully caught it on film) so they can share the experience with others who also hold it at a high a value.
The similarities between motives that drive creekers and playboaters are centered in the challenges involved. Not the unique and differing challenges of an individual trick or hard rapid, but the meeting of our skills with a comparable challenge. Challenging ourselves at a level in proportion to our skill level creates the rewarding experiences that drive us. Feelings of euphoria and accomplishment follow moments of absolute focus and clarity. In the midst of a challenge, at the height of testing our skills against the challenge, a whitewater paddler’s addiction is fed. While this experience of altered consciousness has undoubtedly been around for all of human history, it wasn’t until a few decades ago that it began to be studied by psychologist.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conducted thousands of interviews in the early 1970’s where people described a common experience derived from activities that matched their skill levels with similar levels of demanded performance in a verity of activities. Athletes, musicians, chess players, and surgeons all reported a similar state of altered consciousness while excelling in their field of expertise Subsequently, subjects reported a greater interest in these activities because of the resulting pleasure and focus experienced during the state of altered consciousness.
Csikszentmihalyi deemed this altered state "flow" and defined it as an "optimal state of experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy, or attention, is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunity for action." Flow "provides a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting a person into a new reality. It pushes a person to higher levels of performance, and leads to previously undreamed of states of consciousness. In this growth of self lies the key flow activities." "Potentially negative experiences can be transformed into flow by 1) setting clear goals to strive toward, 2) becoming immersed in the activity chosen, 3) paying attention to what is happening, and 4) learning to enjoy immediate experiences."
My non-scientific observations find the experience of Flow seems more elusive outside the outdoor community and most common among whitewater paddlers. These observations are linked to a factor that has not yet been studied (as far as I know) by psychologist, the connection between an activity’s interaction with the natural world and the ease at which participants achieve the state of Flow.
We go out in search of this perfect state of Flow. These moments of bliss light a fire within us to seek them again and again, whatever the cost. We abandon obligations to friends, family, and careers in favor of promising water levels. We try in vain to explain to others the amazing joy we have found, but outside the paddling community our explanations fall mostly on deaf ears. Like explaining colors to someone who has been blind since birth, they have no frame of reference or starting point at which we can begin to explain or elaborate.
Eventually most peoples bodies rebel against the abusive nature of the sport and abilities begin to decline. As moments of Flow become fewer and further apart the rest of life begins to creep back in. Finally paying attention to the jobs, family, and non-paddling friends that have been ignored during the quest. The ebbing of the drive to paddle allows joy to be found in other things again, pleasures more easily obtainable, but never quite as sweet. Lives fill in with the “others” that take the place of challenging paddling until the gorges experienced in youth are nothing more then memories.
The lucky ones stay in this driven state of madness for years, many years, but few do. The demanding nature of the sport is little competition for the demanding nature of society.