Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
BLUE MOUNTAIN, ONTARIO — After enduring 30 years on Bay Street, you might just want to tie yourself to a rope and plummet full speed toward the ground. That’s exactly what Rob Thorburn chose to do after retiring from the financial industry in Toronto more than a decade ago. One of the first decisions Thorburn made after taking ownership of the Scenic Caves attraction in Ontario’s Georgian Bay region was to install a zip line.
“People would phone up to see what it was. They’d never even heard of it,” Thorburn said of the activity that’s grown popular with adventure tour operators around the world. Scenic Caves initially had a 1,000-foot (or 304-metre) zip line that ended on a platform outside of the attraction’s visitors centre. It was among the first sights patrons of the revamped Scenic Caves Nature Adventures encountered once Thorburn converted it into one of the premier eco-tourism sites in Canada.
On Thursday, Thorburn will unveil to the media a massive new zip line attraction that more than doubles the length of the site’s first cable ride and, if that wasn’t enough, features a wicked drop of 300 feet (91 metres).
“You go over the tree line here and then you drop fast,” he said, pointing in the direction of where the Thunderbird Twin Zip Lines — which each run half a mile (2,650 feet or 805 metres) — will carry daredevils tethered to a steel cable with a harness and a helmet strap. Thorburn grins sadistically as he ogles the plummeting cable. “That’s when their stomachs are really going to turn.”
He’s in his 70s and when asked if he’s going to try this ride, he beamed and replied, “Oh, yeah.”
Thorburn walks around the park like a kid. He picks up trash on the trails and stops to play photographer for the guests, taking pictures of couples and families without them even asking. He never tells them he’s the owner or lets them in on how he had turned a business struggling to make money into an enterprise that’s been honoured by the National Awards for Tourism Excellence.
In his time as owner of Scenic Caves, Thorburn has added the longest suspension bridge in southern Ontario, allowing visitors to traverse a 420-foot (126-metre) span that sends them between a forest that features 15 different types of trees and gives them a clear view of Georgian Bay and the longest freshwater beach in the world, Wasaga Beach. In autumn, the bridge is heralded as one of the best places in the province to see the fall colours. The creation of the bridge was a major undertaking that included a moment when Thorburn and his son had to fire arrows over the treetops to determine the distance needed for the construction of the span.
You can read about the making of the bridge, as well as enjoy plenty of family-friendly activities such as mini-golf and a miniature train ride during your visit. One surprise is the demographic of the Scenic Caves. Thorburn said his operation has attracted plenty of women who come for the treetop hiking (where visitors walk along planks 50 feet in the air), the picturesque views of the surrounding United Nations-designated biosphere reserve and to explore the caves themselves, a series of limestone passageways that hold significance to the First Nations and to the settlement of the region.
“We offer light excitement,” Thorburn told me when I visited in June. “And we let you experience three or four life firsts, with the chance to walk in the treetops, to zip line and to see the forest and the colours when you cross through the suspension bridge. Those are things you can’t experience in a city but you don’t have to go far out of the city to find that stuff. It’s right here.”
Tonia Lama made the three-hour drive from Brantford, Ontario with her girlfriends, one of whom was enjoying her bachelorette party at the Village of Blue Mountain, down the road from the Scenic Caves. “What a rush!” Lama said after she completed her first ever run on a zip line. “This is outstanding. We wanted a girls’ getaway and we thought this would be fun.”
While the Thunderbird Zip Line might push Thorburn’s notion of “light excitement” to the max, it’s a good bet it will succeed like other things he’s attempted since taking ownership of Scenic Caves. The business now gets more than 800,000 visitors a year — quadruple what it had under previous ownership — and makes millions in revenue.
“If you do things right and you take care of the business, you’ll find people are going to want to come and they’re going to want to come back,” Thorburn said. “More and more, we find customers come here wanting to get close to nature, and we let them do that.”
MORE ABOUT SCENIC CAVES NATURE ADVENTURES
Location: 260 Scenic Caves Road, Blue Mountain, ON (see map below for directions from Toronto, which is about 2.5 hours away by car).
Admission Rates: $20.80 for adults ($16.82 for kids 3-17) to enter the park, explore the caves and cross the suspension bridge. The Thunderbird Twin Zip Line ride costs an additional $22.57 for all ages. The new zip line is already open.