As a very general rule, New Mexicans are either fans of the Dallas Cowboys or the Denver Broncos. Cowboy faithful are from the lower elevations, the eastern and southern parts of the state, a somewhat bumpier version of west Texas. In the north, where the wind blows just as hard, but across snow and sagebrush and treeless peaks, people root for Denver. One would think that a man like George Rael, from the spectacular town of Questa about 30 miles from the Colorado border, would bleed in Bronco blue and orange. And one would be wrong.
“If it didn’t have something to do with the outdoors, I wasn’t interested,” Rael says. “I never cared about sports.”
George Rael has harvested a bull elk from public lands for fifteen consecutive years. Growing up in the southern Rockies, he has supped on cutthroat trout, deer and elk for as long as he can remember. Like a mountain lion, the wild meat diet was never a matter of choice. One day he realized that he was so inextricable from his life in the woods, that he might as well make a career out of it. Now, four years later, his intimate and hard-won knowledge of his home country – the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Study Area, the Latir and Wheeler Peak Wilderness Areas, and the Valle Vidal Unit of the Carson National Forest – provides him with a lifestyle that only a person without a soul would not covet.
As owner of George’s Premier Hunting Services, Rael makes half of his annual income putting hunters (preferably youngsters) on elk and mule deer. In the off season, Rael operates his excavation business (he worked on Questa’s new fish habitat restoration project) and also restores cabins, the earnings from which combine with his wife Lori’s job at Ace Hardware to allow for a measure of household security. As a bonus, George collects antler sheds every spring, from which he fashions lamps and chandeliers for sale to luxury home owners throughout New Mexico and beyond.
“Even though he worked real hard, my dad couldn’t afford to send his kids to college. I want my children to have that opportunity if that’s what they want.”
Rael has three hijos, sons George III. Luke, and 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 George Sr. tended to 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, all in the dark of night.
It seems safe to assume, therefore, that by the time George Rael’s children decide to go to 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 one can’t make it in a village like Questa without adapting to the land. It’s true that hunting and fishing provide excellent real life training; 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, and quietly. The quiet 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. On top of all that, one can’t overlook the contribution patience can make in terms of food on the table, be it meat, cash, or both.
To George Rael’s way of thinking, hunting and fishing also instill values, not just the importance of listening to the land but of taking care of it, which Rael agrees is a tall order in these often tumultuous times. Plenty has changed since his childhood. Off highway vehicles (OHVs) have become the hunting method of choice, often to the extreme 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 Area, for example, elk hunting is less than optimal due to the increase in hikers that Rael has seen.
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. Roads and OHV trails are getting wider and are penetrating deeper into quality wildlife habitat. Truck hunting and poaching are having a bigger impact on game numbers. Reasonably limiting motorized access – including closing roads in critical habitat – simply results in better hunting, which provides meat for rural families on tight budgets.
To repeat, George 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, anything, a fish or a frog or a bird with a BB gun,” Rael says, “they’re going to clean it and eat it.”
“This beautiful wilderness is my back yard, and I am dedicated to providing successful, enjoyable hunting trips and to maintaining high ethical standards and respect for the land and animals we hunt.” Words to live by indeed.
Get out with George this year for a true wilderness hunting experience. George Rael Jr. Premier-Outfitters.com (575)779-4907