Riding the Loyalist Loop
The autumn leaves were at their height, and knowing that cooler temperatures are just around the corner, my riding buddy Ray and I decided to do a day ride into the early history of Ontario.
Our trip began at St. Raphael’s Catholic Church Ruins on Highway 18 just north of Lancaster. One of the earliest Catholic churches (1786) in English-speaking Canada, it was destroyed by fire in 1970. However, the outer walls and elements of the interior were spared and stabilized, and in 1999, the ruins were declared a National Historic Site. The adjacent graveyard and historical plaques reveal the strong Scottish heritage of the area.
We then headed west along Highway 18, which runs parallel to and just north of the 401 and is more bike-friendly. The surrounding fields were being harvested, with trees in the distance in full colour. At times, we passed through groves that covered the road, stopping only at a few local landmarks.
Our next stop was Merrickville for lunch at Bob’s Fresh Cut Fries. This quaint town was settled by William Merrick, a Loyalist settler originally from Springfield, Massachusetts. Merrick dammed the river and created mills that are still evident in ruins and artifacts maintained by Parks Canada. The Rideau Canal passes through Merrickville and in the summer months the blockhouse, which guarded the canal from potential American attacks, is open to the public. The old manual locks are still in operation and we were lucky to catch the swing-bridge in action.
Perth was founded in 1816 and was a military settlement, with surrounding lands given to veterans of the 1812 war. Many early Scottish settlers were stonemasons, and their work is still evident in the many stone buildings in the city centre. For years, Perth was the judicial, political, and social capital of the entire Ottawa Valley, eventually replaced only by “Bytown,” which became Ottawa, our nation’s capital. The Rideau Canal runs through Perth too and provides a picturesque place to stretch your legs or have lunch. The clocktower and Mammoth Cheese are good attractions, but there are no less than seven cafés in the city centre, not including Starbucks and Tim’s, so it’s a great place to recharge roughly halfway through the loop.
After we were sufficiently caffeinated, we started south out of Perth on County Road 1 that cuts diagonally southeast and ends in Brockville, settled by Loyalists and named after the famous British General Sir Isaac Brock, whose innovative tactics were instrumental in repelling American troops.
For years, I thought of Brockville as only the big box stores and fast food restaurants that are just off the highway, until I ventured into the city centre on a group ride. You will get a very different perspective in the old city. A nice rest spot is at Blockhouse Island with the marina, public restrooms, the Brockville Railway Tunnel and, for aviation enthusiasts, parkland that includes a Golden Hawk Sabre Jet, the original airplane of the Canadian Forces Snowbirds.
The trip east took us along Highway 2 past The Blue Church, built in 1875, and into Prescott, another quaint old town founded in the early 19th Century by another Loyalist soldier. Prescott also contains Fort Wellington, built during the War of 1812 and used to thwart the American invasions of 1837-38. The fort was closed for the season when we passed through, but in the summer months, a Union Jack can be seen flying above the National Historic Site.
Highway 2 is one of my favourite roads to ride. This scenic highway follows the river and passes through more quaint towns like Cardinal, Morrisburg, and Ingleside. The Long Sault Parkway is a must if you happen to be there at sunset. From there, it was a short ride through Cornwall back to South Lancaster again.
Facts and Figures
The Loyalist Loop is 389 kilometers long with approximately 6 ½ hours of saddle time. Riders from Quebec begin and end in South Lancaster; riders in Ontario can begin in Brockville via Kingston; and riders coming from the US should begin in Prescott after crossing the Ogdensburg-Prescott International Bridge. I’d say there is no preference in the direction to ride the loop, although we timed our day to end up riding the shore of the Saint Lawrence River (Highway 2) at dusk.
I grew up in Ontario and, like many people, was rather ignorant of my local history, taking it for granted. But riding provides us an opportunity to explore familiar places with fresh eyes. When the ride and not the destination is the goal, we approach geography with a different mindset, one that is more observant and reflective. Even if you are not very interested in history, the old stone buildings, boutiques, cafes, bookstores, ice cream shops, and local diners that dot The Loyalist Loop, not to mention the great roads, are a very pleasant way to spend a day riding with friends.