450 Million Years – A Brief History
The cliffs and caves form
450 million years ago (the Ordovician era): The Michigan Sea teems with ancient life. Over time, the shells of tiny creatures settle to the bottom, joining sediment brought by rivers, and forming layers of sand, clay and calcium carbonate.
Over millions of years, pressure, heat and chemical reactions turn the sedimentary layers to stone. Sand becomes sandstone. Clay becomes shale. Calcium carbonate becomes limestone.
250 million years ago: The Sea retreats and the Escarpment begins its slow rise from the Earth. A layer of hard dolostone tops softer layers of limestone, shale and sandstone. Over millions of years, the softer lower layers eroded, while the tough upper layer resists, protecting the layer below it.
Over time, glacial ice, weathering and ancient waves shape the caves and sculpt rocky outcrops along the towering cliffs.
Beyond time — Natural features and Native spirituality
Ekarenniondi, Oscotarach and the Thunderbird
The deep clefts and the imposing standing stone of the site lent themselves perfectly to the spiritual beliefs of the native people who migrated northward to the region before the arrival of the Europeans. In 1636, the Jesuit Father Jean de Brébeuf recorded these beliefs in “The Ideas of the Hurons Regarding the Nature of the Soul, both in this Life and after Death”.
The path to the Village of the Souls — the Afterlife — was marked by a rock called Ekarenniondi, which stood in the land of the Petun, west of the Hurons. And on the same road “before arriving at the Village, one comes to a Cabin where lives one named Oscotarach, or ‘Pierce-head’, who draws the brains out of the heads of the dead, and keeps them.” (The tale might sound gruesome, but Oscotarach would have been seen as a benevolent helper who removed the memories from the dead so that they would not recall their past lives or long for life itself.)
Archaeologist and historian Charles Garrad has extensively studied the tales and their relationship to the area. “Today, no-one disputes that the sacred Rock marking the trail to the Village of the Dead, which is at the same time Ekarenniondi, The Watcher and Oscotarach, the Head-Piercer, is the rock long so identified at the Scenic Caves. It is the only rock which meets all the tests implied in the legends….”
He offers further thoughts to spark the imagination of those visiting the rock.
“The appearance of the rock varies,” he writes. “The angle and strength of light, the consequent shadows, the position of the viewer, and the degree of imagination applied, all are factors in determining what the viewer sees. From one minute to another the rock may be perceived to be the petrified figure of a sleepy bear or a tired old man. A ‘death’s-head’ effigy sometimes appears. From below it may be a bear rearing up, or a watchful owl. Any of these interpretations would make an acceptable Oscotarach, with claws, teeth, beak, talons. He faces east, watching for journeying Souls. With further imagination, the rounded, weathered boulders strewn at his feet down the talus slope below the Rock look strangely like human brains…
“There are also many cracks and cavities leading down into the rock, perceivable as the route to the Underworld below. It is a place where, in the Ojibwa cosmological view, all Three (Upper, Middle and Lower) Worlds meet.”
Ekarenniondi may also be the source of power of the 17th century Onditachiae, a Petun shaman famous for being able to control the weather. Garrad suggests that he would have lived in or near the village of Ekarenniondi , and might have used the Rock as a vantage from which to view the weather approaching from the Northwest.
As recently as the early 20th century, the Chippewas of Rama spoke of a Thunderbird’s nest on Blue Mountain . The Thunderbird was said to be able to control the weather.
Before 1616: As many as 8000 native people live in nine villages along the Escarpment. The Hurons call them Tionontati — the people from the other side of the mountain. The Village of Ekarenniondi (actually two companion villages) is situated on the site of Scenic Caves Nature Adventures.
Winter, 1616: Samuel de Champlain visits Ekarenniondi and other villages of the Petun (or Tobacco People), as the people are known by the French. The name may have been suggested by the natives’ cultivation of tobacco or, more likely, their extensive use of it in ceremonies.
c. 1637: The village of Ekarenniondi is relocated to the ridge above Craigleith.
1639: The Jesuits establish the Mission of St. Matthieu at Ekarenniondi.
Winter, 1648-1649: The Iroquois League overrun the Huron. Many Huron take refuge in Petun villages.
December 7, 1649 : The Iroquois attack the Petun Village of Etharita, and the Huron and Petun survivors descend on Ekarenniondi.
Spring 1650: The Petun and Huron abandon their country forever, journeying by canoe up Georgian Bay and westward, initially to Mackinac Island. These people eventually became known as the Wyandot, who today reside primarily in Oklahoma.
Before 1818: After the Petun-Wyandot people left, the area remained empty for years. At some point, Algonquin Indian bands occupied the area, until one branch — the Ojibwa — ceded the land to the British Crown in 1818.
Mid 1800s. Settlers begin to carve farms from the rugged bush in the area, and even before Collingwood’s incorporation in 1858, local people begin to explore the Scenic Caves area. The main road up the Escarpment crosses the property. A carving of initials in one of the caves still reads 1850.
Late 1800s and early 1900s: Historians, scholars and researchers seek the village of Ekarenniondi and the sacred rock. While some propose locations within the Pretty River Valley and in Collingwood Harbour , the rock at Scenic Caves is finally accepted as the site referred to by Brébeuf.
Before 1930: The Scenic Caves property has been settled and operates as a farm.
1932: Alfred Staples purchases 130 acres from the Haney estate. He builds a cabin, wooden ladders and wooden bridges, and begins to promote the site as a tourist attraction with guided tours of the ancient caves. Calling himself the “Man of Nature”, he’s a one-man travelling billboard for the Caves. By feats of daring and endurance — such as crossing the ice of Nottawasaga Bay to Christian Island and walking from Collingwood to Chicago, he attracts attention and publicizes the Scenic Caves.
1948: Staple’s daughter Catherine and her husband Archie McArthur purchased the Scenic Caves property from Mr. Staples. In the ensuing years the McArthurs erect hand railings, bridges and safety features and work at the Caves on a full-time basis during the summer months. As the business grows each year, the McArthur’s begin to hire students to run tours through the trails.
1955: Archie and Catherine McArthur purchase another 40 acres, opening up another set of caves. During the next 25 years, the McArthurs expand the amenities, building the gift shop, providing parking, and further establish the Caves as an area attraction.
1962: The volume of tourists grows too large to be accommodated by a tour guide. The trails through the caves are marked with arrows and signs so visitors can hike on their own with a small history handbook on the Scenic Caves.
1964: Jerry McArthur (Catherine and Archie’s son / Mr. Staples’ grandson) leaves his position at the Toronto Police Force to work with his father on a full-time basis. Jerry and his wife, Sandra McArthur operate the Caves with a staff of approximately 12-15 people, opening in April and running until Labour Day Weekend.
1985: The McArthurs sell Scenic Caves to Terry Rodgers, a well-known and prominent Collingwood businessman.
1975: Archaeologist Charles Garrad confirms the location of the villages of Ekarenniondi at the Scenic Caves site with a number of excavations, beginning this year.
1993: Rob Thorburn, a Toronto businessman with a keen interest in protecting nature and the Niagara Escarpment, buys the property. Thorburn and his family put tremendous efforts into improving Scenic Caves and ‘breathing new life’ into this significant tourist attraction. They continue to develop and improve the amenities and activities.
2000: The name is transformed to Scenic Caves Nature Adventures.
2002: The Nordic Centre at Scenic Caves Nature Adventure opens, offering 15 km. of beautiful trails for cross country skiing and snowshoeing.
2003: The Suspension Bridge at Scenic Caves Nature Adventures welcomes its first visitors.
2004: Eco Adventure Tour introduces visitors to a canopy walk, forest zip lines, magnificent views from rare vantages and a new way of looking at the living world around us.
2009: Rocky the Train (Big Rock Railroad Station) enchants all ages.
2012: Thunderbird Twin Zip Lines launched, featuring new technology and the longest Twin Zip Line in Canada.
The future: Much more adventure, including
- A Living History Sugar Bush demonstrating how people tapped this tasty resource through the centuries.
- A Cedar Maze
- Starlight Winter Adventures
- Tethered Balloon Rides
- Wilderness Cabins/ Glamping