A spectacle of snakes: Narcisse Snake Dens

Snakes have formed a mating ball in this tree.

Snakes have formed a mating ball in this tree.

A land where it can reach 50 degrees below zero seems an unlikely spot for the world’s largest concentration of cold-bodied reptiles to reside.

While interpreters encourage you to pick up a snake if you like, they ask that you only pick up one at a time.

While interpreters encourage you to pick up a snake if you
like, they ask that you only pick up one at a time.

But it is here, in the Interlake, where one of the most amazing, naturally occurring events in the wild can be experienced. Networks of caverns have formed over time in the limestone bedrock that is located close to the surface. Cold prairie temperatures and erosion have caused the limestone substrate to crack, creating fissures opening up large sinkholes, allowing the snakes to hibernate below the frost line.

Here, the largest population of overwintering red-sided garter snakes in the world gather together in writhing, tangled masses as they perform their spring mating ritual.

The dens have garnered worldwide recognition due to their northern location; this garter snake is the only reptile known to survive so prolifically in such a cold climate. There are a limited number of den sites, only four in fact, which enables this massive gathering of snakes in the spring as they try to mate before departing to the surrounding marshes for the summer. In the fall, they return to the dens, following the pheromones of other snakes, where tens of thousands gather to overwinter in a space the size of a living room.

snake-boyFrom the end of April through to the beginning of May, tourists and scientists from all over the world travel to the Narcisse Snake Dens to view this spectacle brought on by spring’s melting snow and warming ground − the signal for this mass of snakes to awake and leave their winter homes in the limestone dens.

Our provincial snake ambassadors are much like Manitobans − friendly. They are harmless creatures with tiny teeth they only use for eating. In reality, our cold-blooded male pals may not be so much friendly as they are completely oblivious to people or anything that is not a female snake. Still, there is no fighting for territory or acts of domination.

Male snakes outnumber females a hundred to one; aroused by the slightly larger female snake’s pheromones, they surround her in droves hoping to be that special guy. They get so wrapped up in their quest that they can tumble downhill in large “mating balls” of writhing forms.

Tunnels built under the highway now allow snakes to cross safely.

Tunnels built under the highway now allow snakes to cross safely.

Snakes in these numbers are not a symbol of doom but rather the opposite – a symbol of a healthy, thriving ecosystem.

Signs provide visitors with more information about these unusual snakes.

Signs provide visitors with more
information about these unusual
snakes.

Narcisse offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be surrounded by scores of snakes, who really just ignore you. It is thrilling to experience. The sound of their scaled bodies scraping together combined with the roar of thousands of almost silent hisses is incredible.

After taking a closer look at them, you may find they are actually quite cute with their large unblinking doe eyes and gentle nature. Should you be brave enough to pick one up, you’ll find they are cool to the touch and just wriggle through your fingers. They may be small but you can feel the power in their lithe little bodies.

Warm sunny days in the spring and fall are the best times for viewing, but be sure to check the website gov.mb.ca/conservation/wildlife/spmon/narsnakes/snakes_status.html, which provides accurate updates on snake activity and also offers directions for the one-and-a-half hour scenic drive north of Winnipeg.

Walkways over the dens were built to allow visitors a better view and to keep snakes safe.

Walkways over the dens were
built to allow visitors a better view
and to keep snakes safe.

The Narcisse Snake Dens are located a mere six kilometres north of the town of Narcisse. Signs guide motorists to the entrance equipped with washrooms, a picnic area, and the start of a three kilometre walking trail. Interpretive signs line the crushed limestone trail that winds through native grasses and an aspen forest, leading to boardwalks and viewing platforms near the dens. The site is managed by Manitoba Conservation and the Narcisse Snake Management Advisory Group to minimize the tourists’ impact on the snakes. This is a fun event for all, and a child favourite.

The red-sided garter snake or Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis is a gentle and “friendly” snake.

The red-sided garter snake or Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis is a gentle and “friendly” snake.