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Blue Mountain Nordic Centre

2003 February 20 – Blue Mountain Nordic Centre

Active Pursuits, Travel Column
Toronto Star Newspaper

The opening of a new cross-country ski centre in Ontario is a highly unusual occurrence.

With today’s changing weather patterns, unreliable snowfall and dwindling participation, the provincial cross-country ski scene over the past decade has rather been punctuated with stories of hardships, uncertain futures and even closures.

Yet despite the odds, a new venue has opened in our midst. And if ever there was a place with promise for success, the new Blue Mountain Nordic Centre is it.

Situated on the Niagara Escarpment at the Collingwood Scenic Caves Nature Preserve, the centre lies in the snowbelt of the lake effect of Georgian Bay. When I visited last week, the accumulation of white on the base lodge rooftop was ski pole high.

Neighbouring Blue Mountain, which is getting a major facelift from Intrawest, the centre has a growing audience and drawing card of 1.3 million winter enthusiasts.

“I envisioned having cross-country skiing on the property when I purchased Scenic Caves 10 years ago,” said owner Rob Thorburn, an avid nordic skier himself. “I’ve been conceptualizing with the Niagara Escarpment Commission and the Town of the Blue Mountains and also working with the Ministry of Natural Resources in Grey County, and it’s taken four years to find the right mix.”

The “mix” that Thorburn is talking about, is development and operational designs with consideration to environmental sensitivities and sustainability. After all, the Niagara Escarpment has been designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve for its precious ecosystem.

Open daily, the centre has 16 km of trackset trails with an adjacent groomed lane for skate-skiing. The trails for the Scenic Caves are not part of the system and the caves themselves are strictly off-limits. The base lodge is heated by a fireplace, and an outdoor toilet is warmed by an electrical heater. Ski equipment and also snowshoe rentals are offered on-site.

“We cater prominently to classic-style skiing, to those who want to go into the forest and feel alone,” said Thorburn who also consulted with cross-country ski experts in Canada and the United States. “Trails are spread out. They’re not built for speed but for mood and the feeling you get in the woods.”

The 400-acre property is covered in hardwood forest. From the base lodge, which is perched about three-quarters of the way up the escarpment, beginner trails wind across the slope through a former farmer’s field with apple trees, hawthorns and young maples, while intermediate routes climb beyond it, into a mature forest with 200-year-old oaks and maples.

Looking down between the trees and also from a lookout point on the top of the escarpment, is a view of Georgian Bay – its curving shoreline and steel blue horizon.

Already the centre is seeing 300 to 400 visitors every weekend day. “People are overjoyed with the experience – look at the comments in the guest book,” said Thorburn.

The centre’s 30 pairs of snowshoe rentals are also getting a lot of use – even though designated snowshoe trails have yet to be opened. For now, people are using snowshoes on the groomed skate-skiing lane, and also up a steep ungroomed service road to the lookout.

The development of more trails, for both cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, is in the works, but Thorburn’s plans extend beyond trails.

“Over the next year-and-a-half, I’ll be spending $1 million to also build a 126-metre-long suspension bridge over a forested valley, and also a boardwalk in the tree tops as part of an eco-adventure tour,” he explained, as he showed me the works-in-progress.

“I think I’m the luckiest guy in the world to live where I’m living and do what I’m doing,” said Thorburn, 63, who tends to view the world with eyes of appreciation after having successfully battled the onslaught of epilepsy and cancer a decade ago.

Trading stress for the outdoor life, Thorburn left the world of Bay Street and bought Scenic Caves Nature Preserve in 1993. What was a faltering business at the time, Thorburn rejuvenated into one of the top privately-owned attractions in Central Ontario.

“This is so much better than Bay Street,” said Thorburn. “I feel I’m helping people. They come here and I see them releasing their tension. They come out cleansed.”

Nordic trail passes for adults on weekends are $10, and snowshoe rates are $9. Prices are less on weekdays, and for youth and children.

Directions: In the west end of Collingwood, where First Street (Hwy. 26) turns north (there’s a Pizza Pizza on the corner), continue west on Mountain Road. At the next set of lights, continue 1.3 km past the intersection, turn left on Mountain Drive and follow signs to Scenic Caves. Tel: 705-446-0256. Web: www.sceniccaves.com