John ‘Buck’ Kaleta was born here in Canmore in 1917; and his career truly mirrored the town’s mining past. As a strapping teenager, Buck picked rock from coal and installed underground track for mine cars. After passing his miner’s exam, he shovelled coal into those cars for 30 years.
In 1950, after toiling for more than three decades in Canmore’s subterranean mine shafts, Buck moved above ground to work as a prospector studying outcrops for telltale signs of coal seams. He left mining in 1976 – just three years before Canmore’s last mine closed.
Buck earned his nickname by befriending a lame buckskin horse. One day someone hollered “Hey Buckskin!” and the name stuck to the man rather than the nag.
Down in the mines, everyone had a nickname…’Crackers’, ‘Sticky’ (who knew how to handle a hockey stick), ‘Potato Pete’, ‘Seven Kid Louie’ (who probably enjoyed his time underground more than most)…a long list that’s both amusing and perplexing.
When they weren’t shovelling coal, Buck and his pals caught and broke wild horses, and then they’d ride ’em up to Spray Lakes and White Man Pass to go fishing. “They’d head out late in the afternoon, camp halfway up and arrive early the next morning. Some had fly rods and some had bamboo rods, but they’d catch as many grayling as they could carry. If they had too many to eat themselves, they’d trade them with the town’s Chinese merchants for tea and herbs.
In his own understated way, Buck’s son Kerry describes his father as ‘a big guy’ – a burly, often intimidating but ultimately gentle giant renowned locally as a tree feller, and a tireless worker whose record for shovelling coal still stands.
Kerry tells of the time he was clearing trees with his dad. When the truck they were using as a ‘motorized logging horse’ overturned, Buck fetched another old truck – one whose licence plates had long since expired. As they eventually emerged from the forest blackened with sweat and grit from a full day’s labour, people started pointing and making a fuss “as if we were two old hillbillies rolling out of the woods after so many years.”
Buck loved to play hockey. As young fellows they had no fancy hockey equipment though; for pads, they used catalogues strapped to their shins! In his later life, Buck put his passion for horses and his love of the Rocky Mountain wilderness to great use as an outfitter and guide for Canmore Ranch.
At Spring Creek’s annual skating parties, Buck would man the team for the horse and carriage rides every year – a role that now falls to Kerry’s business partner and son – a heritage passed down that continues in Canmore today.
Many thanks to those that contributed to this article, with considerable appreciation to the Canmore Museum for sharing their image and the many wonderful stories about Canmore.