By James Rose
Special to the Pioneer
This past holiday season, Panorama Mountain Resort was noticeably busy. Granted, the holidays are usually the resorts busiest time of the year, but this year the number of people skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, eating, drinking, enjoying family time, all seemed more than typical. Rumors flew that that skier visitation numbers broke all-time resort records (the previous record being set some ten years ago). Panoramas management declined to confirm or deny the achievement, but after spending considerable time at the resort over Decembers last two weeks, to me, the rumblings sure seemed plausible.
All told, it would be difficult to deny the wind in Panoramas sails. An upward trend in popularity, visitation, international exposure, newly added skiable terrain, housing developments and the tailwinds from macroeconomic forces such as a low Canadian dollar. Each has helped Panorama stand out amongst its peers. And who can forget the award Panorama recently won, be named North Americas Resort of the Year.
The ski business is a competitive one. Each mountain, hill, resort, or area a skier can choose to visit has its advantages and disadvantages. For Panorama to make the recent mark that it has says something about the strategy, hard work, and determination of the current employees, management and ownership group.
What is easy to lose sight of however, in the midst of all the busy crowds, is the work done by a previous generation of employees, managers and owners that enabled Panoramas current achievements to be possible. So true is the old saying that with any worthwhile achievement is made possible by standing on the shoulders of giants.
And yes, many of those shoulders did belong to figurative giants, people such as Guy Messerli, the person often regarded as the godfather of Panorama. But those shoulders also belonged to people that made their mark on Panorama in smaller, yet more subtle ways. People such as Frank Puskeric. You would not be remiss to not know who Frank is, or that he helped roof Panoramas original A-Frame day lodge (that has long since been torn down and replaced with the current more expansive version).
It would be a mistake to neglect the role people like Frank played in shaping todays version of Panorama Mountain Resort. In many ways, the resort is a byproduct of the Columbia Valley region and the colourful cast of characters that have called it home for the last 70-odd years.
Before making his way to Canada, Frank was born and raised in Croatia (then a part of Yugoslavia). At the time, living conditions during and after the Second World War were nothing short of dire. For the better part of the 20th century, Croatia operated under oppressive communist rule. Opportunities were few and far between. Not until the mid-1990s did Croatia gain independence, as Yugoslavia violently disintegrated (eventually becoming seven separate states).
When Frank was growing up in a small town south of Zagreb, a favourite pastime for kids was to run through the woods looking for freshly fallen apples from one of the many nearby apple trees. Horrifyingly, the kids would sometimes stumble across strange objects hanging from the trees up above village seniors hung by the neck, dead. The body simply left there to hang and decompose. At the time, this was a brutal practice the Serbians (the largest ethnic group in the former Yugoslavia) engaged in to flex their dictatorial muscle and display to Croatians what could become of them if, god-forbid, they step out of party line.
In the years before Frank turned 20, he served in the Yugoslavian military. He had no choice. Active duty was compulsory of virtually all Croatias young men. One of his many duties while serving was patrolling the Austrian-Yugoslavia border. Yet despite the drudgery that came with military life, that one duty turned out to be a blessing in disguise for young Frank.
Patrolling the border gave him a unique set of knowledge that would play a crucial role for him to find a better life: knowing where and how and when to escape Yugoslavia into the Austrian frontier. Doing so was tremendously risky, the stakes were high. If he were to cross and get caught while serving in the military, he would be sent to jail for years. If he (or anyone for that matter) were to cross as a civilian and be caught, that typically would mean execution.
After finishing his compulsory two years in the military, Frank found odd jobs in Zagreb. One of those jobs was working as a steel worker. It was a relatively good job and he got it thanks to an older cousin. But still, he was not satisfied. Upward mobility and many of the freedoms we Canadians tend to take for granted not available in communist Yugoslavia.
Meanwhile, as Frank worked the steel industry, his older brother, Miko, along with his wife already had escaped and made it to Canada. And of all places, they settled in the Columbia Valley. In the late 1950s jobs were aplenty in the valley if you were willing to work hard in the then-thriving logging industry.
The writing was on the wall. Frank wanted badly to join his brother in Canada. Finally, he one day decided to simply up and quit his job. It was now or never he concluded, and his escape plan soon crystallized. Maximizing his odds of crossing without being caught involved doing so at night. And so that is what he did, along with a fellow Croatian and his young family. I met this fellow at a barbershop in Zagreb and he had already tried and failed, without getting caught, so I suggested to him that he and his kids join me in my attempt, recalls Mr. Puskeric.
After a hair-raising midnight flight, the brave Croatians made it across under Franks tutelage. In Austria they now were one border crossing closer to being free. Soon they went their separate ways with Frank continuing his on his own.
After working in Vienna for a time, I went up to Hamburg and got on an old Greek liner and made my way across the Atlantic. We docked in Montreal, and from there I got on a cross-country train to Cranbrook. Waiting for Frank in Cranbrook was his brother Miko in a borrowed car. We then drove to Invermere, and almost right away I had a job logging.
Frank worked first for John Ronachers logging outfit. And after a couple years he then worked for the Campbell Brothers. In the late 1960s, just like today, the timber logged north of Invermere was, for the most part, refined at the Radium sawmill. One year however, the workers of the mill went on strike, and so people like Frank were at loose ends until the mills labour disputes were resolved. But a different kind of opportunity for Frank was just around the corner.
His employers, the enterprising Campbells, happened to be major shareholders in an upstart ski area up Toby Creek known as Panorama. In 1968, under Guy Messerlis leadership, the construction of the ski areas first day lodge was underway and help was needed. With a unique A-Frame architecture, roofing the lodge proved challenging. The Campbells assigned their idle loggers to help do the roof, and one of those loggers happened to be Frank Puskeric. It only took a couple weeks for the roof to be completed and by the time Frank was finished, the strike at the sawmill was over. Back to logging he went.
In the ensuing years, the A-Frame lodge was a central to early Panorama. It brought people of all different backgrounds together under one roof; each with a shared passion for the outdoors, the sport of skiing, and getting together with friends old and new. For example, in the late 1970s, the A-Frame was the setting for John Cronin to meet fellow musician David Swanee Swanson. To this day they still perform together in front of many adoring fans.
Franks contribution to Panoramas development was small, but an important one nonetheless. Countless other people have had a similar impact on Panorama that when all added together, made possible for Panorama to become the award winning resort that it is today.
It was fun roofing the A-Frame, chuckles Mr. Puskeric looking back. For me, the opportunities here in Canada and in the Invermere area made me always so very grateful. Life in Croatia when I was growing up was so very hard, and always I tell my children that, you know, they should be kissing the ground!