Voices from the River: Repaying the land

George Rael


by Toner Mitchell


Without a football team of their own, the majority of New Mexico sports fans love either the Dallas Cowboys or the Denver Broncos. Generally, Cowboy faithful are from the lower elevations, the eastern and southern parts of the state, which is a somewhat bumpier version of west Texas. In the north, where the wind blows just as hard, but across snow, sagebrush and treelesspeaks, people root for Denver. One would think that a man like George Rael, from the spectacular town of Questa about 20 miles south of the Colorado border, would bleed Bronco blue and orange.


And one would be wrong. In one respect, George Rael is a mountain lion in that his wild meat diet is not a matter of choice; he’s eaten elk, deer, or trout almost every meal since birth. Outside of his wife and kids, his best friends in life have been mountains and horses.


“Broncos, Cowboys, I never cared about sports,” Rael says. “If it didn’t have something to do with the outdoors, I wasn’t interested.”


After a stint running machinery at Questa’s local molybdenum mine, the eventual day came when George understood that his life was so inextricable from the woods that he might as well make a career of it. George’s Premier Hunting Services was born. Nine years later, his intimate and hard-won knowledge of his home country—the Columbine Hondo, Wheeler Peak and Latir Peaks Wilderness Areas, and the Valle Vidal Unit of the Carson National Forest—provides him with a life that only a person without a soul would not covet.


Rael makes half of his annual income lodging hunters and putting them (he loves guiding youngsters) on elk and mule deer. In the off season, he operates an excavation business and restores cabins, combines earnings with his wife Lori’s job at the Ace Hardware Store in Questa, for an extra measure of household security. As a bonus, George collects antler sheds, with which he fashions lamps and chandeliers for sale to luxury home owners throughout the Southwest.


“Even though he worked real hard, my dad couldn’t afford to send his kids to college. I want to work just as hard so my children to have that opportunity if that’s what they want.”


Rael has three children: sons George III and Luke, and a 6-year-old daughter, Alexia. While all three have jumped feet first into the outdoor life, George III already plays an important role in his father’s guiding business. On a recent trip, while his father nursed a badly injured horse in the field, George III—11 years old at the time—confidently guided their clients out of the wilderness to the trailhead. Impressive enough, but the young man accomplished this feat in the dark of night.


It seems safe to assume that by the time George Rael’s children decide to attend college or not, they might each have learned the trade from their dad. At the very least, they will have learned critical skills from their adventures in the northern New Mexico high country. Rael is convinced that a person can’t live in a village like Questa—a traditional Spanish community surviving on agriculture and subsistence hunting and fishing—without somehow adapting to the land. He loves the intelligence of mule deer, how a hunter has to study a single animal for weeks if he’s to stand a chance.


He hunts with horses, because they take him deep into the woods, quietly. Silence allows Rael to hear what’s going on around him, to feel the land’s rhythms and moods. Quiet becomes patience. Patience becomes trout and big bulls, or any number of gifts he or his children might wrest from the world they live in. Above all, patience yields food on the table, be it meat, cash, or both.


To Rael’s way of thinking, hunting and fishing instill values. Not just the importance of listening to the land but of taking care of it, which he feels is a tall order in these tumultuous times. Plenty has changed since his childhood. Off highway vehicles (OHVs) have become the huntingmethod” of choice, often to the detriment of elk wallows and wet meadows. Game corridors have shifted in response to human housing expansion and land use patterns. In the Columbine Hondo Wilderness, for example, George finds that elk hunting is more difficult due to the increase in the number of hikers.


The fact that human use continues to increase is why George Rael believes that designated wilderness areas play an important role in the sound management of public lands. Particularly near the ski town of Red River, roads and OHV trails are getting wider and penetrate deeper into quality fish and wildlife habitat. Truck hunting and poaching are having bigger impacts on game numbers. Reasonably limiting motorized access – including closing roads in critical habitat – simply results in better hunting and fishing, which provides meat for rural families on tight budgets.


Rael believes in reasonable measures, so that everyone can enjoy the many gifts public lands can and should provide. Since their earliest days on two feet, he has taught his kids to be thankful for nature’s bounty, to never take it for granted.


“If they kill anything, and I mean anything, a fish or a frog or a bird,” Rael says, “they’re going to clean it and eat it. This beautiful wilderness is our back yard, and along with making our living off it, we need to maintain high ethical standards and respect for the land and the animals we hunt.”


Words to live by indeed. It seems everything George does reflects this respect. He even wants to tailor his excavator skills towards land stewardship, hoping to play a role in restoring function to his local Red River. The stream, polluted and channelized by a century of mine-related activities, gives George Rael yet another opportunity to give back.


“The mine gave us life but at a cost we have to repay. Never forget. The land should be repaid.”


Toner Mitchell is TU’s water and habitat coordinator for New Mexico.



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