Voices from the River: Community in the canyon

By Randy Scholfield

Rivers bring us together—they attract people and grow community. They sustain us and hold places together.

I was reminded anew of this truth last week in northern New Mexico’s Rio Grande Gorge, where I road-tripped with my colleague Toner Mitchell for an annual native cutthroat trout stocking event near the small town of Questa.

It was Easter weekend. As we drove north from Santa Fe,we passed pilgrims, young and old, walking along the highway, some carrying wooden crosses on their shoulders, heading to the Santuario in Chimayo.

They, too, were on an annual ritual to reconnect with something deep and renewing in their lives.

For me, the Gorge is one of those deep places in my life that keeps drawing me back and putting things in perspective. A place of big silences, shifting light and sweeping vistas. A place that literally takes your breath away—especially on the hike out.

We drove into Questa and then a few miles along the curving dirt road into the Wild Rivers campground area, where we suddenly saw a long line of cars parked along the road, stretching around the bend.

“Whoa,” said Toner. “I’ve never seen it anything like this.”

New Mexico Game and Fish staff were running the stocking event, which depends on volunteers to transport oxygenated plastic bags of native Rio Grande cutthroat trout fingerlings down to the river, where they will be turned loose in eddies and slower currents along the bank.

There were far fewer people last year, Toner said. This year, a line  of people stretched back--more than 200 of them, by our rough count--waiting to get their baggies of trout. Many carried fishing rods and were obviously here to fish, too.

Debbie Blanchette and her husband and two sons, Nate and Colton, have come here from Farmington with their 4-H club. “We fish and do a lot of outdoor stuff,” she told me. “This is a way to give back.”

“I brought my binoculars,” Colton, 11, volunteered, holding them up proudly. “I’d like to see a big fish jumping up for a fly. Or maybe an elk or deer.”

Others came from as far away as El Paso.  

As the line moved forward, volunteers received their bags of trout, placed them carefully into backpacks and headed for one of the several trailheads at the canyon edge. As we hiked down the La Junta trail, about a mile down steep, rocky switchbacks to the river, you could see the ribbon of Red River below, flowing down to the larger Rio Grande.

Walking with us was Chris Michael, who is starting a fishing guide business on the river. Growing up in Taos, he said, the canyon was a favorite haunt. He knows miles of this stretch like the back of his hand and has nicknamed many of its features that you won’t find on any map: The Boneyard, the SuperDome. He's made the canyon his own.

“This place is a lifeline for me,” he said. “I’m wanting to guide people here and show them the beauty of this place. It’s special.”

Also with us on the hike down is Lindsay Mapes, who coordinates the Questa Economic Development Fund. “Questa is in transition,” she told me. “We’re moving from a mining economy to something more sustainable based on outdoor recreation.”

Among other things, she is working to find locals to provide Airbnb housing for popular nearby tourist areas like Red River. Chris, too, exemplifies the new breed of local entrepreneur who is leading Questa into the future by starting outdoor recreation businesses.

Once, he said, while fishing in the canyon, he found an injured juvenile bald eagle. He rolled the eagle up in his jacket and hiked it out, turning it over to Fish and Game biologists for rehabilitation. He understands that the canyon and its wildlife must be preserved and nurtured.

Chris Michael

As we walk along, Chris constantly scans the ground, picking up jagged black shards of volcanic rock, inspecting them.

“They left spearpoints and arrowheads everywhere,” he says of the ancients, who for centuries hunted and fished here in this canyon. “They must have had a great life—they had everything they needed.”

After the steep hike down, we finally reach the river and plop down on the boulder-strewn bank. Chris and Toner have packed in trout and now open the bags and place them in the water, letting the small trout wriggle out and cluster protectively behind rocks and reeds.

We watch as Chris uses his spinning lure to plumb the pocket water around boulders. “I like the big browns, they’re aggressive,” he says.

Indeed, those big predators likely will feast on many of these fingerlings. But some of the cutthroats will survive and reproduce, increasing the diverse angling offerings of the river, which also holds wild rainbows and cuttbows.

Other people who completed the hike down are scattered up and down the riverbank, some fishing, some just watching the river or the soaring canyon walls.

After a while, we head back up the trail—a lung-buster if you take it too fast. Lindsay told us that a trail-running race was being planned along this route in October. It’s another imaginative way that Questa is using its rivers and public lands to build community.

“The monument designation really has brought a lot of people here,” said Tim Long of the Bureau of Land Management. “And there’s room to grow. Our campgrounds are rarely full. It’s a best-kept secret.”

Questa is counting on the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, the Red River and other nearby natural resources to be the foundation of a sustainable economy, built on rivers and native fish. TU’s Toner Mitchell has been working with Questa leaders for several years now to make that vision a reality.

Will it work? The large, happy crowd of hikers and anglers lined up here today voted with their feet, making this event a huge success. A community is growing here. Next year, I’m sure, they’ll be back in even greater numbers.

The town of Questa will be ready for them.

End of the trail: The green chile burrito at Frank's in Questa.

Randy Scholfield is TU’s director of communications for the Southwest.


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