Art in the Wilderness
Memories set down in pen-and-ink, brookies and Fortress Mountain included.
By Alberto Rey

When an overweight, 62–year-old man with the lingering effects of rugby gets out of a boat, anything can happen.

This time I was climbing out of an open skiff at Fortress Lake in British Columbia, eager to watch my son, Diego, cast to a pod of large brook trout. They were all stacked in a trench at the outlet to the Woods River, and I wanted to document the action.

Fortress Lake is nestled between two mountain ranges in the Canadian Rockies north of Banff. Its brookies are descendants of Ontario’s Nipigon Lake strain, introduced by park rangers into Fortress in 1928. This is the same strain that produced the longstanding world-record brookie. I saw images of a Fortress brook trout caught a couple weeks prior to my arrival that might have challenged that 34-inch-long fish.

Although there wasn’t a trout like that at the outlet, I envisioned a photo composition incorporating Diego casting with the turquoise-colored water at his feet, his light-colored shirt contrasting with dark foliage along the bank. The Fortress Lake Mountains on the right and left sides of the composition would create bookends to the snowcapped mountains above.

I looked into the water and saw small stones on the shoreline; a bit deeper were a couple of bigger rocks with sand around them. I didn’t see anything of concern, so I quickly stepped into the water and waded into position. I placed one foot on a rock to stabilize my body and secure a steady shot. As I raised the old, heavy 7D Canon, my foot slipped off the rock and I started to dance with both feet, trying to find purchase. Instead, I realized that I was going under. As my head dipped into the water, my only concern was keeping the camera dry.

Fully submerged, I looked up through the water and saw my hand and the camera overhead and still dry. I felt a sense of relief, even though I was in semi-shock due to the cold, glacial water. A few seconds later, sort of hyperventilating, I found solid footing and walked out of the water.

That is how I impressed the editor of this magazine, along with the owner of Fortress Lake Lodge, who had invited me to his impressive facility. One of the guides, another writer, and my son all got to witness this debacle, and all stood slack-jawed on the shoreline trying to comprehend what they’d just seen during the first few minutes of our five-day trip. Diego, who’s 21, was laughing hysterically. My son's reaction demonstrates how accustomed he is to my blunders, and the amount of trash talking we have shared over the decades. I knew I was in for it on this one.

I have been trash talking and sharing fishing waters with my two kids, Graciela and Diego, since they were born. You might think that trash talking to your kids at an early age is insensitive, but my wife Janeil and I have a saying: "We are raising oak trees, not orchids." I regularly put the kids in my backpack, made to accommodate toddlers, and took them with when I fished for steelhead and bass in Canadaway Creek, which flows behind our house and my studio.

While I raised my kids the same, Graciela had little interest in the outdoors while Diego found an immediate connection. Moving water has bonded us, and fly fishing has been the excuse for us to share adventures. We know each other very well and have watched each other change over the decades. There is no one I would rather spend a fly fishing trip with than him, and he has told me the same.

My attraction to Fortress Lake started with a conversation with Craig Somers, the owner of the only outfit on the lake. It was clear that Somers is a laid back, caring, and knowledgeable person. After meeting him, as soon as I got home, I booked the trip for Diego and me. This past August, after 12 hours of flights and layovers and a three-hour drive, we were finally on a helicopter headed into camp.

The half-hour chopper ride took us around and over steep, glacier-capped mountains with Fortress Lake finally coming into view. The lake’s turquoise blue water is surrounded by jagged peaks that create mirror images on the oftentimes placid surface. It was an amazing sight. The beauty of the scene is difficult to describe; not something we will ever forget. As the helicopter began its descent, we saw Fortress Lake’s staff welcoming us with waves.

Somers has found a way to bring everyday conveniences to his wilderness camp. These include hot showers, flushable toilets, and comfortable beds. In addition, wood burning stoves heat each cabin, taking the chill off those early fall mornings. There’s also a wood-burning hot tub which, after a gourmet dinner, I found to be a perfect place to soak with a glass of wine or a beer and recount the day’s events.

Fortress Lake’s water levels and temperatures change throughout the day and throughout the season, which runs from July through September. Melting glaciers surrounding the lake create streams. As summer progresses and the lake warms, the cold-blooded brook trout congregate at the mouths of these streams, seeking cold water and oxygen. We focused on these inlets and stripped various streamers on fast-sinking lines.

Most times we would pull up to these inlets and find a bunch of logs. We’d make a cast toward the logs, let the fly sink, and then strip it over a sand bar and into deeper water. When our flies dipped off those sand bars, the brook trout hammered them.

My favorite fly was a tungsten conehead marabou streamer in pink and white. I tied this fly for steelhead fishing back home, and it worked well here, too. One of the most popular flies here is a large, weighted Egg-Sucking Leech. No matter which fly these fish took, they fought remarkably. Most ranged between 14 and 17 inches and they dove hard for the bottom when hooked. It took a lot of pressure on the rod to finally bring them to the net.

During August, these brook trout are at various stages of their spawning cycle, so you catch fish in a variety of colorations ranging from bright and shiny silver to dark black and fire orange. By September most of these fish are in their deep spawning colors.

During the trip, I created simple black-and-white ink drawings, placing as many tiny details as possible, an effort to easily recall the scene in the future. Translating that information onto a small drawing space while using a permanent pen was not an easy task. But, as with everything, years of practice provided a sense of confidence in the endeavor. When creating the drawing it was important to balance busy line-work with open, simple shapes, which allows the line-work to breathe. In this manner, I hoped the viewer would not be overwhelmed with a cluttered composition.

I found a sense of freedom while creating these drawings with a tool that is unforgiving. Since I did not make preliminary drawings, and I could not make corrections to the black lines once they were placed on the paper, I resigned myself to living and working with the marks. There is a sense of beauty in the imperfections, and that provides a window to the process. Nothing is hidden. By placing myself in each drawing, the viewer sees exactly what I saw while drawing.

Fly fishing is a welcome excuse to find solitude and escape the layers of our daily lives. While I am addicted to it, I find that the older I get, the more I realize that the act of fly fishing is only as important as the location where I am throwing a line. While I have done my share of urban fishing, I find that wilderness experiences re-center me and allow me to appreciate my life, my relationships, and the opportunities that have brought me to this point. Being able to share those experiences with somebody that my wife and I created is incredibly rewarding. I have not always been the easiest person to get along with, but luckily for Diego and me, time has rounded off some of those rough edges, allowing us both to fully appreciate our time on the water and those wilderness adventures we have shared.

Alberto Rey

Alberto Rey is the 2021 Orvis Guide of the Year, a Distinguished Professor, an artist, a videographer, a writer,  and the founder/director of a youth fly fishing program. His artwork is the permanent collection of over 20 museum collections and he has written and illustrated three books, Complexities of Water: Bagmati River, Nepal, The Extinct Birds Project, Lost Beauty: Icebergs and is the cowriter for Survey of Canadaway Creek in Western New York. More information is available on his website,