Age, Fly fishing, and Legacies: Meriwether Lewis and the Rest of Us

I have been corresponding with a very old friend recently.  This friend’s father — a humble man — is a long-time fly fisherman.  As he ages, my friend tells me, he looks for evidence that he has been successful, appreciated, and so on.   From the little I know, my friend’s father is an accomplished fly fisherman with numerous fly patterns and even an unusually high-profile publication to his credit.  Moreover, he is a medical doctor, and he has undoubtedly helped many people in that capacity.  Still, I think most of us can understand his feelings.  Therefore, as I learn more about this man and his role in the history of fly fishing in the American West, I resolve that he will receive evidence of my own admiration.

The correspondence with my friend put me in mind of a journal entry written by Captain Meriwether Lewis on August 18th, 1805, during his US government sponsored exploration of the American Northwest with William Clark and others.  Lewis and Clark’s trip, arranged by President Thomas Jefferson, is remembered as the “Voyage of Discovery.”

No doubt, most readers are familiar with Lewis and Clark.  Fly fishers may know that members of the expedition catalogued many fish that were previously unknown to Euro-Americans.  The scientific name of the Westslope Cutthroat Trout, Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi, reminds us of this. 

The fact that the “Voyage of Discovery” is remembered by so many means that Lewis and the others accomplished a degree of fame.  Mind you, I am no particular fan of Lewis and Clark.  They “discovered” nothing that was not already known to the indigenous inhabitants of the lands they crossed.  Moreover, they set back Euro-American relations with some of those inhabitants significantly, through their prejudicial and even deadly behavior toward Native Americans (the reader should know that Blackfoot oral tradition relates a very different account of the fatal encounter between Clark and the Blackfeet than the one Clark, himself, relates).

My cultural concerns aside, the physical feats that Lewis and the others accomplished in crossing and recrossing a significant portion of the continent are astounding.  And yet, there is Lewis’ journal entry, which I mentioned earlier.  I quote it here (precisely), from The Journals of Lewis and Clark, edited by Bernard DeVoto (1997).

This day I completed my thirty first year, and conceived that I had in all human probability now existed about half the period which I am to remain in the Sublunary world.  I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little, indeed, to further the hapiness of the human race or to advance the information of the succeeding generation.  I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now sourly feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended.  but since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought, and resolved in future, to redouble my exertions and at least indeavor to promote those two primary ojbects of human existence, by giving them the aid of that portion of talents which nature and fortune have bestoed on me; or in future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself. (1997, 206)

Clark’s unusual moment of humility and self-reflection is startling, given the task in which he was currently engaged.  Admittedly, I don’t think he did much to increase mankind’s happiness — certainly not that of Native Americans.  Yet, he did “advance the information” possessed by his fellow Euro-Americans about the Northwest and, to a very small extent, about the indigenous peoples there.

If, then, someone like Clark can doubt the value of his past actions, even at such a young age, it is only natural that others of us are concerned about our contributions to the world, or lack thereof, and about the perceptions others have of us.  One way to relieve such concerns, when felt by those we admire — to further their happiness, as Clark put it — is to inform them of our appreciation and respect. I hope that many people besides myself do this for my friend’s fly fishing father.

Note: Interested readers can learn more about Lewis and Clark and the fish they encountered during their expedition, in the 21 page pamphlet Fish, Fishing, and Lewis & Clark: The True Story of the Greatest Fishing Trip Ever, published in 2009 by the Federation of Fly Fishers. I am certain it can be obtained by contacting the FFF or the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Department.  I’ll bracket my issues with the pamphlet’s title.

2 Responses to “Age, Fly fishing, and Legacies: Meriwether Lewis and the Rest of Us”

  1. Erin Block Says:

    Wonderful piece of writing and history here, Kenneth. And we can indeed all benefit from such an examined life. This struck me, “but since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought, and resolved in future, to redouble my exertions.”
    Heartened and bolstered…to let those who I appreciate and respect know…and also to make my own life worth the same, some day.
    Thank you so much for this reminder.


  2. Kenov Says:

    Thank you, Erin. I find his words heartening as well. The essay is a much a reminder for me, as for any one else. Now, to get rid of the “gloomy thought,” to which he refers ….


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