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Making Glad the Wilderness: Our Thousand Islands Pitch Pines

One of the things I look forward to most of all, upon arriving back at camp for the summer, is to hop in my kayak and check out all my favorite spots on the River. There are several islands located near our cottage that I’ve come to feel at least partial ownership to (no need to mention that to their owners). I head over to one of the islands closest to our camp which, like so many of the other islands, could be described as having an evergreen muffin-shaped silhouette. There are easily a thousand things that distinguish the Thousand Islands from just about anywhere else in the world. But one of the most visible is its pitch pines. These tall evergreen sentinels seem to keep watch over the majority of the 1864 islands and riverbanks.

Anyone who has spent any time at all at the River, on either side of the border, is familiar with these distinctive pine trees that are somewhat unique to the Thousand Islands region.

The pitch pine is considered to be a small to medium sized pine tree (ranging anywhere from 20 to 90 ft.). It can be identified by its slightly twisted needles (3-5 inches long) which are bundled in threes, and cones (1-3 inches) with sharp prickles on their tip. Its species name, “Pinus rigida” means rigid or stiff and refers to both the pointed scales on its egg-shaped cones, and to its thick and stiff, sharply pointed needles. Pitch pines are usually well formed and conical when they are young but as the tree ages, especially in areas of poor soil or rocks, it will grow gnarly and asymmetrical with broad and irregular horizontal branches. And it has plenty of years to do so, since the pitch pine can live to be 200 years old.

As common as they are to the area, one can go only a short distance in any direction and the pitch pine is hard not to find. It is said to be native to eastern North America from as far south as Georgia, to as far north as southern Quebec and Ontario but I have never seen them anywhere other than at the River. However, several years ago my mom decided to try transplanting one in her yard in Syracuse, as a year-round reminder of the River; it died. But not to be defeated, she tried again, this time bringing a smaller sapling home in a large clump of its own soil. She then gave it a few good doses of fertilizer and lime, and the little tree took off. Today, it is over 20 feet tall and doing fine (though one has to wonder if it misses its original view).

In addition to being unique to the area, the pitch pine has several characteristics that make it unique among other trees. As its name suggests, it has an unusually high pitch or resin content.

In days gone by, the pitch was traditionally used to help caulk the seams of wooden sailing vessels. It was also used to waterproof wooden containers, and is sometimes still used in the making of torches. Pine resin has been used as a sealant, glue or varnish. There are supposedly some medicinal uses of pine resin, including sealing a wound if one is hurt out in the wild. But today, one of the most common uses of pine pitch is for starting campfires.

The pitch pine is also unique in that it actually prefers growing in dry rocky soil and under very poor conditions. It prefers rocky, sandy regions and is very tolerant of poor soils. It has a deep root system which enables it to access water on dry sites. It is also able to take root in very shallow soil. So, here on the River it is right at home spreading its roots shallowly across the stony granite surfaces of the islands.

Interestingly, even though it is used to start fires, the pitch pine is also known to be quite resistant to fire. Because of this attribute, the tree has even been used to reforest bare or sandy areas. For that matter, fire in the form of controlled burns has even been used to help preserve the pitch pine and proliferate its growth. One of the reasons this is so successful is because, unlike most trees, the pitch pine will sprout new growth – new branches – even from its burned trunk.

Back in September 2014, Thousand Islands Life ran an article by Tom King entitled, “A Fiery Prescription for Camelot Island’s Pitch Pines” which described a “prescribed fire” he observed on Camelot Island.

Another controlled burn was performed by the St. Lawrence Islands National Park in 2011 in an attempt to keep the pitch pines healthy and thriving. In an article entitled, “Pitch pine to benefit from controlled burn” the Kingston Whig reported:

“It's not easy being a fire-dependent species in the St. Lawrence Islands National Park these days, since certain areas haven't burned in almost 100 years. This afternoon, a controlled burn of a half-hectare patch of forest will be conducted to help some pitch pine seedlings proliferate. Currently, the shade-intolerant species is facing competition from taller co-dominant deciduous trees such as maples and oaks,” said Jeff Leggo, park superintendent. "The idea is to open up the canape and reduce the competition so that the pitch pine will have a chance to grow up. They should regenerate naturally.”

So, those Thousand Islands sentinels actually flourish and grow healthier under the most difficult circumstances. We could probably all learn a thing or two from them.

As I was trying to learn more about pitch pines I came across a fascinating article that described them this way:

“The pitch pine carries picturesqueness to extremes, and becomes in old age grotesque, even absolutely ugly. It has the look of a tree that has been hounded by untoward circumstances. In youth the tree has a rounded, symmetrical head, formed of successive whorls of branches. In its subsequent struggles symmetry is lost, and the contorted limbs, tufted with scant, sickly-looking foliage, and studded with the squat, black, prickly cones of many years, reach out with an expression of mute appeal that tempts one to cut the tree down and end its sufferings. If it is cut, however, it sends up suckers from the roots, a strange habit among the pines; and its winged seeds spread the species over barren and shifting sand dunes, and otherwise hopelessly treeless areas. …There is small excuse for the pitch pine to stay on, were it not for the one thing it does better than any other-it makes glad the wilderness and the solitary place.”


I laughed out loud when I read how this particular plant guide described the pitch pine. One might be tempted to think of it as the ugly survivor. But then, whether intentional or by sheer coincidence, the author used a Scripture reference to conclude his description of the pitch pine. Isaiah wrote, The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. (Isaiah 35:1).

This verse, along with the rest of Isaiah 35, is one of the most beautiful and joy-filled passages in the Bible. It is describing a time when destruction will be replaced by newness, deserts will be turned into streams of water, fear turned to joy, and despair to salvation. It is a reminder that those who put their trust in God will one day find their sorrow replaced “with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away” (Is 35:10).

So, while life may seem to get awfully difficult at times, the hardy pitch pine is a reminder that if we allow our roots to cling to the Rock below us, we can thrive in even the harshest of circumstances. Even more, after this present world passes away there will be new growth – new life – new hope and even a new River.

By Patricia Mondore

Patty Mondore and her husband, Bob, are summer residents of the Thousand Islands. Patty is a published author and a singer/song writer.  Her most recent books include “River Reflections: A 90-Day Devotional for People Who Love the Water” and its sequel, “Nature Reflections: A 90-Day Devotional for People Who Love Nature.” Her other books include River-Lations: Inspirational stories and photos from the “Thousand Islands, A Good Paddling, Proclaim His Praise in the Islands,” and “Perennial Faith.” She and Bob, co-authored “Singer Castle,” and “Singer Castle Revisited” published by Arcadia Publishing, and co-produced Dark Island’s “Castle of Mysteries” documentary DVD, in addition to a Thousand Islands music DVD trilogy. Patty is a contributing writer for the “Thousand Islands Sun. Her column,” "River-Lations", appears in the “Vacationer” throughout the summer months. The Mondores are online at

Please feel free to leave comments about this article using the form below. Comments are moderated and we do not accept comments that contain links. As per our privacy policy, your email address will not be shared and is inaccessible even to us. For general comments, please email the editor.


Bud Andress
Comment by: Bud Andress
Left at: 3:49 PM Monday, February 16, 2015
Patricia, enjoyed your article on the pitch pine, a favourite tree of mine too. The pitch pine is the official tree of Gananoque and the official park symbol of 1000 Islands National Park (formerly St. Lawrence Islands N.P.). I always considered its unusual shape and appearance at an older age reflective of the weather - the wind and extreme sun exposure that can be thrust on a tree growing here in the 1000 Islands. I know many that don't care much for the tree, seeing only a lack in wood production or sightly appearance value. I see it more as...if one who grew up here were to look at their 5 year old picture and compare that with their 65 year old picture, 1000 Islands living, with all it has to offer and take from you, would make the person and the tree quite comparable.

I studied the pitch pine tree in my career and after several observations made on an area of high ground in the middle of Hill Island referred to by the National Park as "the Pitch Pine Ridge", I conducted a 23 year observation experiment at my home on the west end of Hill Island. There were several mature dead pitch pine trees throughout the "Pitch Pine Ridge" that were standing dead, completely void of bark. The trees stood with appearances of candycane striping, with a twisted look to the gray weathered exposed inner bark from the ground to the top of the tree trunk. This got me thinking this may be another way the tree is successful in a harsh growing environment (ie. being predominately on fast draining arrid southwestern slopes, exposed to the southwest wind). If the tree actually twisted as it grew, not only would new branches on the lee side be rotated into the sun and wind, but the twisting of the stem would make it stronger. I watched a small pitch pine (4 inches in dia.) for 23 years on the south side of my home. A particular branch rotated around 360 degrees and then another approximate 90 degrees in this twisting motion in the 23 years.
Kyle Petersen
Comment by: Kyle Petersen
Left at: 5:44 PM Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Your family too is from Syracuse? so are we!
Comment by: Lynette
Left at: 4:07 PM Tuesday, March 10, 2015
Once again you hit the ball out of the park. I will be looking for these pine trees on my next adventure on the River. And when I do, I will remember your great analogy "it we allow our roots to cling to the Rock below us, we can thrive in even the harshest of circumstances". Thanks for sharing your gift of writing with us! Keep the articles coming!!!!
Jim Evans
Comment by: Jim Evans
Left at: 3:07 PM Thursday, April 9, 2015
I was always told that the pitch pine seed needed fire to germinate? I believe some of the great pines of the west coast are similar in that regard?
Comment by: Clay
Left at: 12:28 PM Monday, August 3, 2015
Thank you so much for your wonderful article! I may be conducting research on these trees, and am absorbing all published scientific information, as well as cultural.

Gorgeous photographs of Pitch Pines. However, photos 3, 5 and 6 growing from top to bottom are mostly White Pine (Pinus strobus).

Thanks again for your article. Keep writing!


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