Most people would be surprised to know that the world’s largest congregation of snakes occurs on the edge of the Canadian Prairies in Manitoba, very close to the city of Winnipeg. In fact, there are so many snakes that emerge from their dens every spring that wherever the second place location is, it likely doesn’t even come close.
The estimates are that somewhere between 50,000 to 75,000 of these serpents wake up in the Narcisse Snake Dens each spring. The area used to be the floor of an enormous ancient lake (Lake Agassiz) and when the waters receded, it left a limestone bedrock that has allowed the red sided garter snakes to survive the cold Canadian winters. The rock’s crevasses and fissures allow the snakes to crawl down inside the earth and live off their fat stores for the winters. In the spring, they all come out.
When you first walk up to the pits, what you see looks like a massive moving carpet from a scene straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. You can hear all the snakes moving over one another from a few meters away. As you get closer, you will notice that most of them are balled up together. It is mating ball.
Males emerge first and wait for female snakes. Then several males compete by crawling over the female to mate with her. There have been reports of as many as 1,000 males trying to mate with a single female.
The snakes engage in a two to three week frenzy of mating activity, before dispersing to nearby marshes for the summer and returning to their dens in the fall.
Male snakes get no longer than 75cm and females no longer than 90cm. The average female is noticeably larger than its male counterpart.
Despite the huge numbers of snakes, there is no reason to be afraid. The red sided garter snake is not venomous and its teeth are so small that most bites would not even break skin.
Though it is fine to pick them up, is best not to disturb the mating balls; keep handling to a minimum to lessen your impact on the animals. Be warned that they may poop on you as a defense mechanism.
The area – together with nearby Oak Marsh – is a great place for bird-watching, as it’s situated between Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg.
For more details and snake activity updates, visit www.gov.mb.ca.
Oak Hammock Marsh: May is a great time time to visit the marshes, one of North America’s birding hotspots located along the way to the snake dens from Winnipeg. Thousands of migratory shorebirds stop over here on their way north, including sandpipers, godwits and yellowlegs; you can explore the park along 30kms of trails.
Lake Winnipeg: One of the biggest bodies of freshwater in the world, it is 436km in length and 111km across at its widest point. Though it will be too cold to swim in it in May, both the lakeside town of Gimli (home to the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba) and Grand Beach Provincial Park with its warm sand beach and 12m-high sand dunes are worth exploring.
If the weather turns, you can visit Winnipeg’s indoor attractions, including the Canadian Museum of Human Rights with impactful exhibits and amazing architecture, situated at the Forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers where there are scenic river walks; and the Winnipeg
Art Gallery which houses the world’s largest collection of Inuit art.
Where: The Narcisse Snake Dens are located approximately 130km north of Manitoba’s capital, Winnipeg. All 4 dens are connected by a 3km walking trail. The dens are fenced off, but there are viewing platforms and you will still see snakes outside of the pits.
Best time to go: Usually around the second weekend in May is the peak of the season but this does vary from year to year. Snakes are rarely still in the dens by June, and are not very active until at least mid morning. They are cold blooded creatures, so activity will be greater on warm sunny days.
Though all but the newborn/first year snakes return in September, you will not see them in nearly as high a number since they are not mating.
What to wear: Weather in May in Manitoba is unpredictable. On May 4th, 2016 the daytime low was -2.3ºC and the following day, the daytime high was 35.2ºC. Pack for 4 seasons, and decent walking shoes. Bring food and water, as there are no concessions near the dens.