Early Explorers – George Pocaterra

By the time the first white man set foot in the valley, the native people were no longer using it in the same way. The trails had been obstructed by deadfall, and the number of wild animals had dwindled. This phase of the valley history was one of transition from independence in the hands of the Stoney native people, to dependence upon the growing urban influence of the white man as he moved west across the prairies and into the mountains.

The most colourful individual, and one of the few men, besides Palliser, to leave his mark indelibly on the valley, was George W. Pocaterra. Much had happened before George Pocaterra arrived on the scene in 1905, but his name and spirit will endure throughout history. Born in Rocchette, Italy, Pocaterra, whose father ran a textile factory, came from an ancient aristocratic family. He had attended the University of Berne, Switzerland, and when he arrived in Canada in 1903 he was fluent in German, Spanish, Italian and English. He was to become fluent in Stoney as well. He started work in Winnipeg, but soon came west to High River where he worked for the Bar D Ranch. In 1905 he and a cousin, who had lived in Brazil and Argentina, homesteaded the Buffalo Head Ranch in the Eden Valley. This ranch later became one of the first dude ranches in Canada. (The ranch is still in existence and is located on the north side of Highway #541, between the town of Longview and the Kananaskis Country boundary.)

Pocaterra made friends with both white men and Indians. He eventually became a blood brother to Paul Amos, a Stoney Indian, and a great friend to Three Buffalo Bulls, with whom he saw the Kananaskis Lakes from the summit of the Great Divide for the first time. (Most of the Amos families live today on the Stoney Reserve just west of Highway #40, near the Trans-Canada Highway.) Pocaterra describes his initial trip to the Kananaskis Valley as A fairly quick trip over Alridge Pass, over the second range of the Rockies, then down the long, steep slope to Elk River, up the beautiful valley of that large stream to the Elk Lakes, the headwaters of the main tributary of the Kootenay, and over the Elk River Pass to the Kananaskis Lakes. The most beautiful mountain scenery in the world, as far as I am concerned, was at these lakes but now is completely spoiled by the power dams, the drowning of the marvelously beautiful islands and exquisitely curved beaches, the cutting down of the centuries old trees, and the drying up of the twin falls between the two lakes, and the falls below the lower lake. From the Kananaskis Lakes we moved up a tributary from the east over a pass (the Highwood), down the Highwood River to my old Buffalo Head Ranch.

Pocaterra became involved in fur trapping in the Kananaskis Valley. Fur trapping went back hundreds of years to the time when the native people trapped animals in order to clothe themselves. Later, during fur trading days in Canada, the valley was, no doubt, a source of income to the native people, who sold their furs to the Hudson’s Bay Company factor at Morley

The winter of 1906/07 was spent trapping in the upper Kananaskis Valley with Paul Amos and another Stoney friend. The previous summer the three men had built a cabin and stocked it with dried venison and pemmican. Some time after Christmas they left Morley, travelling by horseback as far as the Eau Claire logging camp, where they switched to snowshoes and toboggans. The toboggans were made out of empty coal oil tins. While they were at the Eau Claire camp, Pocaterra found a newspaper dated 1898, which carried news about the Spanish-American war.

Upon settling themselves into the cabin at the Kananaskis Lakes, they divided up the area for trapping. Pocaterra took the area around the two Kananaskis Lakes, up the creek that was later named after him, and over the Highwood Pass to Storm Creek. His two partners took Elk River Pass and the headwaters of the Kananaskis, and over North Kananaskis Pass to the headwaters of the Palliser River (Palliser Pass).

The winter proved to be a memorable one and was later known as the year of the blue snow. The snow was so deep the men had to strap on their snowshoes before leaving the cabin. The fur-bearing animals travelled under the snow, thus making trapping impossible. Pocaterra estimated approximately 75 per cent of the animals died that winter, and they once found two dead goats beside the Kananaskis River.

Because of the tremendous amount of snow, avalanches fell where none had fallen before. Pocaterra witnessed one of these, marvelling at the speed with which it moved and noting the partial vacuum it created, which made it appear to roll backwards. He watched trees being snapped like dry twigs and others being sucked in like matches. (The years 1977 and 1991 were similar winters, with over a metre of snow falling in one snowfall at Upper Kananaskis Lake.) Pocaterra found it impossible to cross the ice of Upper Kananaskis Lake, which he believed to be weakened by hot springs. (Ted Schulte, formerly of Calgary Power Ltd., claimed the weakness was caused by snow cover that insulates the ice and keeps it thin.) The six islands on Upper Kananaskis Lake were named Hawke, Hogue, Cressy, Pegasus, Schooner and Aboukir during Pocaterra’s time

Pocaterra and his friends remained at the Kananaskis Lakes until the end of March when their supplies ran out. One of their caches had been raided by butcher birds and they were very hungry. On their way back to Morley they encountered friends coming to meet them with more supplies.

Trapping was not Pocaterra’s only activity in the Kananaskis Valley. He was also involved in mining exploration. In 1910 he was prospecting for coal in the Evan-Thomas Creek valley and also for the MacKay and Dippie Coal Syndicate on the slopes of Elpoca Mountain, near Highwood Pass. He placed stakes to mark off this latter area and years after his work a Dominion land surveyor saw one of the stakes with Pocaterra’s name on it and named the creek nearby Pocaterra Creek. It was about two years before Pocaterra knew his name was on the map of Alberta. He also built a cabin along Pocaterra Creek that still exists in a decrepit state. Not only did Pocaterra’s name grace a beautiful, crystal clear stream, but in 1955 Calgary Power Ltd. built a dam on Lower Kananaskis Lake and named it the Pocaterra Dam. R. M. Patterson, in his book The Buffalo Head, writes of Mount George and Mount Paul in his tale of adventures. The topographical maps of today do not show these names on any mountains, but from Patterson’s description they appear to be peaks at the most northerly end of the Elk Range.

Pocaterra sold The Buffalo Head Ranch to R. M. Patterson in 1933, and returned to Italy to settle the affairs of his father’s estate. While abroad he met Canadian coloratura soprano Norma Piper who was studying in Milan and in need of someone with an aggressive nature to take charge of her career. It was just the sort of thing that appealed to Pocaterra. Conquering the wilderness or conquering the operatic world, a challenge was something to be met. They were married on June 18, 1936, just as Piper’s singing career was blossoming. In July 1939 she had engagements for the next opera season in France, Austria, Romania and Italy, and was to go to Manila to sing at the opening of a large opera house when World War II broke out. They returned to Canada and settled down on a ranch along the Ghost River in 1941.

Pocaterra returned to the life he had led before, but the Kananaskis Valley was, for him, never the same again. By that time Calgary Power Ltd. had enlarged Upper Kananaskis Lake for use in water storage, and because of the road that was built in 1936, civilization was entering the valley.

The Pocaterras moved to Calgary in 1955 where George died on March 13, 1972, at the age of 89. However, his spirit lives on in the valley he loved so much and in which he spent so many happy times. Pocaterra Creek and Pocaterra Dam remind us of this colourful man, and he is also remembered by Pocaterra Trail, Pocaterra Hut and Pocaterra Group Camp, all in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and close to the creek that bears his name.