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Manitoba's spectacle of snakes draws tourists from around the world

NARCISSE SNAKE DENS, Man.-The snakes-dozens, perhaps even hundreds-resembled a giant undulating blob of spaghetti as they twisted and rolled in their apparent attempt to scale the side of the rocky pit.Like Medusa-the snake-haired goddess of Gree...

Red-sided garter snakes make their way up the rocks in search of a female after emerging from their limestone caves near Narcisse, MB on Wednesday, May 17, 2017. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)
Red-sided garter snakes make their way up the rocks in search of a female after emerging from their limestone caves near Narcisse, MB on Wednesday, May 17, 2017. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)
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NARCISSE SNAKE DENS, Man.-The snakes-dozens, perhaps even hundreds-resembled a giant undulating blob of spaghetti as they twisted and rolled in their apparent attempt to scale the side of the rocky pit.

Like Medusa-the snake-haired goddess of Greek mythology-brushing her reptilian locks, the mass of red-sided garter snakes would slither a foot or two up the side of the pit before sliding back to the bottom.

Over and over they did this, producing a sound similar to white noise as they twisted and slithered at the bottom of the pit.

By any definition, this was a spectacle.

A spectacle of snakes.

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For a few short weeks every spring, red-sided garter snakes-in all their slithering glory-are the star attractions in a show of nature that draws tourists by the thousands to this wildlife management area in Manitoba's Interlake Region about an hour north of Winnipeg.

From across the world they come. To see garter snakes.

During the springtime peak, it's not uncommon for hundreds of smaller male snakes to envelope the larger females, gathering in large, undulating masses, in their efforts to propagate.

"It's the only place in the world where you can see red-sided garter snakes in this density-or maybe any snake," said Pauline Bloom, Central Region wildlife manager for Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship in Gimli, Man. "We get calls every day from people all over the place, all over the world. They're wanting to come, and they want to time it perfectly so they can see the most snakes at any one time."

On a journey

The red-sided garter snakes converge on the Narcisse Snake Dens every fall, following their snake senses to one of four den sites, where they winter in limestone cracks and crevasses that take them far below the frostline.

They emerge in the spring, usually in late April, to breed in the dens before dispersing to woods and wetlands up to 15 miles away. The females give birth to live young-as opposed to laying eggs-and can produce as many as 40 snakes every other year, according to Manitoba's Snakes Alive website.

Females 3 feet long are more than 10 years old, and the odds of a snake reaching 12 years old are less than 1 in 5,000, the website states.

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"As the females get bred, they start to leave," Bloom said. "And males hang around, hang around and then something switches in them, and they leave."

The young snakes don't return to the dens their first year but instead winter in ant hills, animal holes or anyplace else that's deep enough to get below the frost line.

How the snakes know about the dens and how to reach them is "a little bit unknown," Bloom says.

"They rely on a pheromone trail," she said. "One of the suggestions that's out there is that the older snakes know how to go back-how they know, we're not sure-but they leave a pheromone trail, and then other snakes will follow that trail. As there gets to be more and more snakes, that trail gets stronger and stronger and then younger snakes will follow it.

"It's kind of amazing."

The Narcisse Snake Dens can be impressive in the fall, as well, Bloom says, but nothing like the springtime spectacle when the snakes are intent on breeding.

This is the stuff of National Geographic specials, and the snakes have been featured on numerous nature documentaries over the years.

"They're all about breeding when they come out in the spring, so right now, all they're thinking about is breeding," Bloom said. "And then after the breeding season is completed, they disperse out to their summer grounds for feeding and having their young."

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Come summer, you'd be lucky to even see a snake on the site, Bloom says.

"It's amazing; they just go off," she said. "There may be the occasional snake that stays close, but not in these numbers."

Busy place

Snake activity was at or near its springtime peak when Bloom hosted a recent tour of the Narcisse Snake Dens. Even though it was a weekday-and a cool, blustery one, at that-a couple of busloads of schoolkids and perhaps 20 other visitors were walking the 2 miles of limestone trails that wind through aspen woodlands and connect the four den sites.

That was nothing compared to Mother's Day weekend a few days earlier, when 1,200 to 1,500 people visited the dens each day, Bloom said. There's no charge to visit the dens.

"It was warm, and there were tons and tons of people," she said. "It was crazy. "People parked a mile up and down the highway on both sides of the highway, and the parking lot was full.

"Thousands and thousands and thousands of people come through here. It's incredible-to see snakes!"

Visitors aren't allowed to go into the dens-basically open holes that are fenced off but clearly visible from viewing platforms. Visitors can handle snakes along the trail as long as they're careful.

The garter snakes can bite, but they're not poisonous.

"We encourage people to just handle one snake at a time and hold it gently," Bloom said. "You can tell if you have a snake that's happy because it just chills out in your hand versus wiggling around and spinning and freaking out."

Bloom says she learned how to handle the snakes from a friend's 5-year-old.

"I'm getting better," she said. "I was never really inclined to pick them up or handle them much."

Being around thousands and thousands of snakes definitely gives some people the willies, Bloom says. Especially when the snakes suddenly appear along the trail or slither up through planks of the viewing platforms.

"Some people are dealing with fears when they're here," she said. "You can tell they're not 100 percent comfortable, but they're here for their kids or they're here because they want to see it but they're not sure how they feel about it."

Change for the better

Gary Chikousky, who farms nearby and works as an onsite interpreter during the spring snake-viewing season, said the addition of infrastructure such as the limestone trails, interpretive signage and viewing platforms has benefited both visitors and snakes.

"Before this was fenced off and decks were provided, people were coming right into the den areas, taking snakes by the sackful, killing snakes and destroying their habitat," Chikousky said. "People just came here because they hated snakes and wanted to kill them."

No doubt, he says, the snakes have been a boon to the economy in a rural area that otherwise wouldn't see much tourist traffic.

"A lot of Americans, like Deep South Americans," visit the snake dens, Chikousky said. "You get a lot of people coming here specifically for this.

"The peak of activity is pretty spectacular," he said. "It's worth the trip for sure."

Visiting all four of the dens along the trail takes about an hour and a half, a walk that will yield thousands of snakes during prime times. Warm, sunny days offer the best activity.

"I feel like even if you don't like snakes, you can still appreciate the cool factor, the craziness factor," Bloom said. "You can't see snakes like this anywhere else."

ON THE WEB: For more information on the Narcisse Snake Dens, go to naturenorth.com/spring/creature/garter/Narcisse_Snake_Dens.html

IF YOU GO

• The Narcisse Snake Dens are located just over an hour's drive north of Winnipeg on Provincial Highway 17.

• There are four dens on the site, each connected by a limestone trail that covers about 2 miles.

• Snake activity typically peaks in mid-May, but that can vary depending on the weather. The spring season is winding down but the prevalence of cool weather likely has delayed the peak this year.

• September offers another opportunity for viewing the red-sided garter snakes, which return to the dens before slithering back into limestone cracks and crevasses below the frostline for the winter.

• Interpreters are onsite from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends and select weekdays throughout the spring viewing season.

• The snakes are most active on warm, sunny days.

• The NatureNorth website offers regular updates on snake den activity at naturenorth.com/spring/creature/garter/Narcisse_Snake_Dens.html.

Related Topics: GFH INSTAGRAM
Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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