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Flow State

Poison Lake Sunrise, British Columbia

My thought process for writing this blog began when a few of my old friends sent me an article on kayaking and risk assessment. I was transported back to my early work on river conservation and outdoor recreation – and how offended I was (still am) when people said “oh, you’re just a bunch of adrenaline junkies” or “thrill seekers.” It took a while, but eventually I resolved not to be upset because my love of rivers and water was so special and exciting. But this absurd attitude continued to really confuse me because adrenaline and thrills just didn’t capture even a part of why I found myself on the water, day after day.

Mother Grizzly with Cubs, British Columbia

Along with the article was a link explaining flow state (A Review on the Role of the Neuroscience of Flow States in the Modern World), defined as a state of optimal, smooth, and accurate performance along with an acute absorption in the task. Flow state is an expression sometimes linked to transcendence and spirituality, and tasks that you enjoy and are incredibly passionate about. A sense of fluidity between body and mind. Ah, and here it really hits home and becomes relevant for me. It got me wanting to explore the concept more and share it with others.

“There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback.”

Water Reflections! British Columbia

While my skills may never have put me into “optimal” performance status, I have often found myself “in the moment” while on the water. And my experiences (and those of many of my paddling friends) include so many attributes linked to the science of flow state: a highly positive experience, lack of distraction, removal of self-consciousness, and even time distortion (see the complete list of the psychological states in terms of challenge level and skill level here).

Cayoose Creek, British Columbia

Certainly flow state is not limited to kayaking and whitewater, or even creative pursuits, sports, or business, but to any activity where one finds oneself operating at full capacity. I am sure we have all found ourselves “in the zone” at some point in our lives.

Cariboo-Chilcotin Reflection, British Columbia

I know that being one with the water brings me as close to flow-state as I may get. Especially on a first trip down a new river, paddling solo, or in heavy weather when every fiber of your body is focused and alert. But sometimes I can get there just by closing my eyes and feeling the pull on my paddle or having my boat surf along with the current and waves. I can imagine that advanced rock-climbing and high-altitude skiing requires one to reach this level as well. But I can also see achieving flow state in much less stressful activities, such as fishing on a wild Montana river, taking photographs of wildlife or beautiful landscapes, or just sitting on the shore, watching the waves, and gazing out to sea. Thinking these thoughts, and imagining the beauty of nature, I may get close to this state just writing here in my living room.

Far From Home! British Columbia

But of course it is easier when the skills, challenges and environment are all in equilibrium, the formation blocks for any high quality experience. For me, sitting at sunup in the high peaks, or photographing bears and elk, or trying to get an image that is perfect in timing, light, and subject, that is when zoning out is so special. Distractions are gone, time distortion has set in, and my only conscious thought is what I see through the lens or what is around me. As expertise with the camera increases, I am less aware of fumbling with settings and more focused and absorbed in the task. And while I don’t feel that I am especially patient, I find I can sit for hours waiting for that right moment, or for an animal or bird to move into the light and turn its face to me. Cold, hunger, fatigue all seem to fade away as I seek that perfect image.

Look to the Future! Heckman Pass, British Columbia

Last week, I needed to refresh my spirit and find high quality time in the woods, and I traveled north to British Columbia to do that. In great part, this area was a prime reason I moved to Bellingham. We have the North Cascades and the Salish Sea in our backyard, and fifty-three percent of Whatcom County Residents live within a half-mile of a park*, but if you need more, just look north across the border. After you leave suburban Vancouver, you have days of travel though beautiful mountain landscapes and few people. And that splendor just keeps on going the further north you go.

Sun Break - Cayoose Pass, British Columbia

Much of any trip is driving. Traveling along the Sea to Sky Highway up to Whistler, then through the incredible mountain vistas near Pemberton and Lillooet, continuing up the Fraser** River valley, then west out to the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast is easy on the eyes, the mind, and the soul.

Bear Stare! British Columbia

Did I enter flow state on this trip? Since I am not a cutting edge athlete, I may have gotten as close as I can at this point in life. I definitely was in the moment numerous times: sitting beside a turquoise Ashlu Creek, watching a smoke filled sunrise over Cayoosh Pass, the evening sun on Poison Lake along the Dean River, sitting for hours beside a rock fall hoping to see pika (not this time), and an evening walk along the river, seeing a mother grizzly and two cubs – and watching them until total darkness set in.

My absorption with in-the-moment passion, beauty, nature, and being connected with the world – this is what flow means to me.


· *The national average for those living within a half-mile of a park is eighteen percent.

· **The Fraser River is called “Sto:lo” in Halqemeylem, one of the Central Salish First Nations peoples. The Salishan (also Salish) languages are a family of languages of the Pacific Northwest (the Canadian province of British Columbia and the American states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana). Coast Salish (primarily WA, OR and BC) also includes our local Lummi (Lhaq'temish) Nation and Nooksack (Lhéchalosem) Indian Tribe. Nuxalk, is an endangered Salishan language with only 3 fluent speakers in the vicinity of the Canadian town of Bella Coola.

· Flow State is not a new science, and research on this became prevalent in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the father of Flow, was noted for his work in the study of happiness and creativity, and the world’s leading researcher on positive psychology (the scientific study of what makes life most worth living). But he is best known as the architect of the notion of flow.

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