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Atravelynn

What a spectacle! What a natural Phenomenon! What a display of nature, this largest aggregation of snakes anywhere on the planet! (And it’s free!)

 

Narcisse is pronounced Nar Siss. Accent on the first syllable.

 

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Images from Narcisse Wildlife Management Area in May 2014

Note the blue thing under my knees in the crouching photo. It is a garden kneeler that I happened to have in the trunk. It came in very handy.

 

Dueling Quotes of the Trip

Primordial Life Force were my first words upon seeing one of the dens in full swing.

Very interesting but a little repulsive were my husband’s.

Taken together, that about sums it up!

 

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Dens as Destiny

For years I’ve wanted to see the migration of thousands of Red-sided Garter Snakes, which occurs from the end of April well into May. The snakes emerge by the thousands from their subterranean limestone winter dens in Narcisse, Manitoba, entwine in mating balls, and then disperse into the vast surrounding plains.

 

An odd coincidence convinced me that THIS would be the year to finally go. In line at the Kilimanjaro International Airport in Feb 2014, my luggage accidentally bumped the heels of the guy in front of me. Apologies lead to conversation which lead to the Narcisse Snake Dens. The gentleman I had nudged was a Canadian researcher and photographer who told me he had published an article on the Red-sided Garter Snake dens of Narcisse. Would I like a copy? Most certainly!

 

A week later I had a fascinating, informative and beautifully photographed article from Canadian Wildlife Magazine on these snakes. Such an omen was a signal that 2014 would be my Year of the Snake.

 

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4 Dens, No Waiting

There are four dens in the park that can be reached by walking along an easy, well groomed 3 km dirt trail that is very clearly marked. It took me no more than 10 minutes to walk between any two dens. Underground limestone caverns connect all the dens and that’s where the snakes go into their semi-hibernation over the winter. Warm, sunny weather and the snakes’ hormonal chemical reactions bring them out in the spring.

 

The caves tend to be active in succession and not simultaneously, the order dictated by how well the sun hits the dens and by pheromones left behind by snakes who have exited.

 

The onsite naturalists/interpreters told me Den 3 is often most active first, followed by Den 2, and then Den 1, which was the case this year, Dens #1 and #4 being the last to show activity.

 

I witnessed Den #2 and #3 right about their peak. Den #1 was rather dead and Den #4 had about 500 (only 500? Ho hum!) snakes in the vicinity during my visit. I’m not sure how many of the 75,000-ish snakes I saw, but it was THOUSANDS and THOUSANDS.

 

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Narcisse Snake Dens in the Narcisse Wildlife Management Area are located about 90 minutes

driving north of Winnipeg. There is a good map here.

http://www.gov.mb.ca/conservation/wildlife/spmon/narsnakes/snakes_map.html

 

Lots of info is here on NatureNorth's - Narcisse Snake Dens, Snake Log, and they take Paypal donations, thank you very much, to maintain the site. I can claim status as an official donor.

http://www.naturenorth.com/spring/creature/garter/Narcisse_Snake_Dens.html

 

The Manitoba tourism site, Narcisse page is here.

http://www.gov.mb.ca/conservation/wildlife/spmon/narsnakes/index.html

 

Surrounding each den is a wire fence with holes plenty big enough to get a lens from a superzoom through. The fences keep people from entering the den areas but are no deterrents to the snakes, who go wherever they wish. The bulk of the snake activity is in the dens, but individual snakes are all over the grass and paths, though not to the point of crawling over the people.

 

But a word to the wise--especially early in the day when the snakes are drawn to warm surfaces, they may advance toward a dark colored (heat absorbing) backpack and if it is unzipped, head inside. That almost happened to me.

 

Also, when I was laying prone to get some photos, my black rain paints were an attraction. A few quick movements scared off any advancing snakes before they crawled on me. But if f they had, there would be no danger.


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Using the garden kneeling tool. Black garments, such as my rain paints attract snakes early in the day because dark colors absorb heat

 

I preferred no physical contact with the snakes—more for their sake than my own squeamishness. These poor creatures had gone all winter without food so I did not want to delay them further or add to their stress by picking them up. But holding snakes was definitely permitted and lots of people did it. In fact whole families could be seen strolling along, each gently carrying their own personal snake. Farewells had to be made before reaching the parking lot because it is forbidden to remove snakes from the park.

 

While these 4 dens are very accessible to the public, the entire region has dozens of hibernacula--as the underground caves are known--throughout the entire geographic region in both public and private property.

Edited by Atravelynn
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Atravelynn

When to Visit

Generally the third week of April through Mother’s Day or the week after Mother’s Day is prime viewing time. But the snakes don’t have calendars nor do they celebrate Mother’s Day, so timing can change, based on melting snow, temperatures and sun.

 

Fortunately there are frequent updates at

http://www.naturenorth.com/spring/creature/garter/Narcisse_Snake_Dens.html

 

You can look at past years’ logs on the above site, but each year progresses at its own pace depending on weather. Snake activity can change drastically in as little as 15 minutes when the sun comes out, sparking a mass emergence. The tremendously cold winter of 2013-2014 set the schedule back several weeks. Nature North’s log kept me updated so we could plan our getaway once the snakes started coming out.

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Going on a warm, sunny day immediately after a couple of days of rain and overcast skies is ideal because the snakes need the heat when they come out of the caves; and they are rarin’ & ready to go after being holed up a few days due to overcast skies. However, after it has been warm and sunny for the better part of the day, large pesky mosquitoes start biting, I was told. I never personally experienced mosquitoes because our weather and time schedule did not have us at the dens when it had been sunny for many hours or days prior.

 

On cloudy days, not much snake activity can be seen—maybe a dozen or two snakes strewn about. After just a few minutes of bright sun, though, out they come! Weather can change rapidly, so it can be a good idea to wait for the sun. One day we waited 6 hours (thank you for your patience, my dear, non-snake-enthusiast husband) and were FINALLY rewarded by an active den.

 

There are a couple of advantages to strolling around the park on cold, dark, quiet days. #1 The few snakes you might see sit still for easier close-ups. In the sun they either are writhing around or if basking in the sunlight, they seem to be more alert and skittish and slither off quickly when approached. In the cold they are photogenically sluggish. #2 You may see other wildlife in the area that is more abundant when few people are around. And nobody is there when it is dark and rainy. For example, we saw a coyote on a day when the cold and dampness kept most of the snakes in their dens.

 

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Closeups all taken early in the morning or on cold, cloudy days when snakes are less mobile and less active

 

From a crowd perspective, the Mother’s Day weekend can be very crowded. Apparently it is a local tradition to visit the snakes that weekend with Mom, which I find absolutely charming. Also, if activity persists through Victoria Day, the 3-day weekend celebrated on the last Monday before May 25, then that weekend can be really crowded. We were told by the park naturalists/interpreters that this past Victoria Day was the busiest they had seen in 30 years! Cars filled the parking lot and were lined up along on the highway. In contrast, during the week, we had about 10 cars max in the lot and 2 of the cars belonged to the naturalists/interpreters, who were very knowledgeable and helpful. At times the only visitors in the park were my husband and me.

 

We did have a school bus arrive on two occasions with 30-ish kids. They generally stayed in a group so the kids were easy to avoid or engage. I found the students delightful in their enthusiasm, which extended to shoving the snakes they were allowed to hold into my face and requesting that I say hello to Bob, or Jonathon the Second, or whatever names they had chosen. I was a bit concerned with what may have happened to Jonathon the First.

 

Because of my backpack and attire, and based on some of the questions they asked me, I think many of the kids thought I was park staff, which encouraged their exuberant interactions with me. The average adult walking around was not surrounded by snake wielding school children from what I could tell.

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Snakes and squirrels coexist peacefully

 

How much time at the snake dens?

An hour or two is plenty of time to spend at the dens to see lots of snakes if conditions are right. Photographers may want more time to wait for mating balls to come into unobstructed view, out of the shadows, or to locate photogenic individual snakes. Because conditions must be right to entice the snakes to come out in the first place, allowing enough days to wait out a few consecutive days of rain or cold (as we had) is a good idea.

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Mating ball of snakes on the left

 

Our experience:

Monday May 19 afternoon--Pouring rain, we did not attempt a trip to the dens.

 

Tuesday May 20--Drizzle to pouring rain throughout the day, we drove to the den site to be sure we knew where it was and how to get there, but did not walk in the rain to the dens.

 

Wednesday May 21—9 am to 3 pm, dark skies, cold, and not much snake activity despite forecasts for partly sunny all day. Sun came out at 3 pm and so did the snakes within 15 minutes, especially at Den #3. We stayed until 5 pm, observing a lot of activity. Snakes remain active until it cools off or the sun goes down, but my husband deserved a break after an 8-hour day at the dens, so we left at 5 pm.

 

Thursday May 22—8 am to 12:15 pm. From 8 am to 9 am, it was sunny but still quite cool, so not much going on. 9 am to 10 am activity started picking up. By 10 am Den #2 was probably at peak activity. We stayed until 12:15 pm, departing because of our own schedule constraints.

 

We devoted 3 full days (2 half days and 2 full days) to snake viewing at the dens and managed to get 5 hours of suitable conditions. Fortunately those 5 hours were action packed.

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Top photo was taken in the cold, early morning when the snakes were not very active

Edited by Atravelynn
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Atravelynn

Where to Stay

There is no place to stay in Narcisse. You could stay in Winnipeg and drive about 1.5 hours, taking Hwy 7, then Hwy 17. We chose to stay in Gimli (G like gimlet, not like gin) at Lakeview Resort. Very nice, right on Lake Winnipeg, which was still partially frozen 3 weeks into May.

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Lake Winnipeg in May

 

The most direct route to the snake dens from Gimli requires use of a gravel road for at least 15 miles (Hwy 231 is the gravel road that stretches from Hwy 7 at Fraserwood to Hwy 17 at Narcisse). To save our car from potential dings, we opted for the longer paved route (Hwy 8 or Hwy 9, south to Hwy 29. Then west on 29 to Hwy 17. North on 17 to the dens, which are well marked). The trip took us one hour. The extra time it took to avoid the gravel road was no big deal because an early arrival for the snakes was not needed and the traffic was very sparse. Again here is the map.

http://www.gov.mb.ca/conservation/wildlife/spmon/narsnakes/snakes_map.html

 

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We drove to the nearby town of Arborg one of the rainy days and checked out Arborg Hotel, which is a little closer to the dens and has no gravel roads to traverse. It was nice and about $20 CAD less per night than Lakeview (applying no discounts to either). We just stayed put at Lakeview, for the 3 nights we had booked. Lakeview accepts various discounts which brought the cost down to $107 CAD per night. Had one of the nights not been a holiday (Victoria Day), a 3-night stay that does not include a Fri, Sat, or Sun can be booked for $300 CAD total. Those are May 2014 prices.

 

There is a very nice restaurant in the Lakeview Resort, a bar where you can eat, and an attached Red Robin’s. For visitors carrying USDs, the front desk will change them into CADs for a 5% fee.

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The Main Attraction—The Red-sided Garter Snakes

Various sources state between 50,000 and 100,000 snakes use the caves. Whatever, it’s a whole lotta’ snakes. At any one time several thousands of snakes are visible in the bowl shaped dens where they emerge. Some of the dens are more cavernous than others, making the journey up the side more difficult for the snakes.

 

Not all of the snakes have red sides as their name indicates. The red is a pigment like hair color and is more prominent in some snakes than others. The color is genetic and serves no particular purpose according to the naturalists/interpreters.

 

Males emerge from the dens in great numbers and wait to mate with the females, who come out individually over the course of days or weeks. A single female, which is twice the size of a male, will be engulfed by dozens of males to form a mating ball. Once she has mated, she heads away from the dens to spend her summer on the plains. The slow emergence of the females increases survival because if there is an overnight frost, it won’t kill all of the pregnant females because some are still protected underground.

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One of the hemi-penes can be seen in the left photo. Males have a pair held within their body and alternate their use. A rare photo.

 

The female Red-sided Garter snake incubates the eggs internally and gives birth to live little snakes. These baby snakes spend their first winter somewhere safe and protected out in the plains. For their second winter they return to the dens with the other snakes in September or October. Those months are also a good time for snake viewing, but there is no mating in the fall.

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A Star is Born, Actually Two Stars

During the 6-hour stretch of dark skies and cold temps my husband and I encountered Paul Colangelo, a photographer for National Geographic working on an assignment about the snakes. He asked if we’d like to be interviewed on camera and we agreed. Here is the video he created, which provides an excellent information on the snakes and shows them in motion with this video of just a few minutes.. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/06/140626-snakes-narcisse-animals-mating-sex-animals-world/

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The videos of the snakes emerging were shot with camera setups like these. These cameras were set up by Paul, the Nat Geo cameraman and the captured hours of footage.

 

Sadly we did not make the editing cuts so you will not see our close-ups or hear our comments in the video.

 

Dueling Highlights

Our 5 nights away from home and 15-16 hours of travel by car, each way, not including the drives from Gimli to the snakes, produced rather differing highlights for my husband and me.

 

Highlights for me in no particular order:

The sheer volume of snakes.

The individuals distinguishable within the “piles.”

The sound of the snakes moving through the grass, like a whisper.

The coyote.

National Geographic interview.

 

Highlights for my husband in no particular order:

Coyote.

National Geographic interview.

Seeing the miles per gallon on our car reach 38 mpg. In almost 2 years our car had gone no more than 45 miles from home so maximum mileage had never been reached before.

Having gas pumped by attendants at gas stations in Gimli and Arborg. It is all self-serve where we live.

Subsisting on primarily jerky for our 5 days of travel, like the cowboys had to do on their journeys in days of old.

 

From garter snakes to gas stations to cowboy grub it was a good trip.

 

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The End

Edited by Atravelynn
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Thanks for this interesting TR, I'm pleased that you have now realised your wish to see the garter snakes. Your photos are just like those that I recall from the Attenborough documentaries! The furry squirrel is quite a contrast to the slithering snakes, he's obviously at home amongst the reptiles.

 

The NG article is a good summary of this phenomenon and I like the author's views of what it was like to be amaongst the mating snakes - cute?, puppy-dog eyes? Hmmm...

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I remember you talking about visiting the snakes and so it is really wonderful to see the resultant photos and observations. I think you've got a nice and varied collection. The video is interesting but I'm sad you didn't make the cut.

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@@Atravelynn

What an amazing sight. I remember you discussing this in previous posts but I didn't really imagine it to be on this scale.

Very good detailed description of practicalities and lots of great pictures.

I am glad your husband enjoyed some of it!

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michael-ibk

I would have to side with your husband, I´m afraid, since I´m not overly fond of snakes. But this is certainly a fascinating show of nature, and in a way this species oddly looks quite ... cuddly. (Maybe it´s the squirrel pic.) Great pictures!

 

But ... if I suggested doing something like this for Mother´s Day to my mother I´m quite sure she would slap me. ;)

 

NatGeo have no taste - editing you out should not be forgiven.

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SafariChick

The title is the best! Glad you got to see so many snakes - very interesting.

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very fascinating but i also have to side with your husband. i have to admit althoug I read all the text, I had to skip the pictures.

 

sad that you didn't make the NG show, but you are always a star in our ST eyes, @@Atravelynn

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Used to see this nearly every year when I was growing up, only in the back 40. Drove the parents crazy when we kids carted wheelbarrow loads of garter snakes home. The back 40 is now developed into housing, churches and commercial.

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Well done - again! Fascinating and your husband is a trooper (sorry, a gritty, stoic cowboy of old, surviving on coffee in a tin cup and jerky).

 

I would love to see this too, but such a long trip..... hmmm, perhaps I could combine it with bears or something...... or emigrating!

 

Stupid Nat Geo.... they know nothing..

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I'm with Paul on all points! So glad you made it and bummed that I did not - but then I am resigned to the fact that I am simply fated to follow you hither and yon :D I could not persuade my husband to do this however much I may try. But this is definitely worth a trip. And yes, Nat Geo have no idea what they missed!

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Wow Lynn this is too cool. I would love to see that spectacle. I'm making myself stop reading now so that I can finish reading once I get in bed tonight.

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Ok back again. What a wonderful report, beef jerky and all. Photos are excellent as is the entertaining and informative narrative. And I agree...Nat Geo, pffft!! What do they know?! Thanks Lynn. Where are you going next?

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  • 4 weeks later...

Used to see this nearly every year when I was growing up, only in the back 40. Drove the parents crazy when we kids carted wheelbarrow loads of garter snakes home. The back 40 is now developed into housing, churches and commercial.

Now that's a great story but not a happy ending.

 

Thanks all for the nice comments even if snakes are not your favorite creatures!

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  • 2 weeks later...

@@Atravelynn, great report and awesome photos. It's not easy to photography something like this and many of your shots are just stunning. The days of driving and beef jerky paid off!

 

This location has been on my list for a while, but I kind of forgot about it until now. Thanks for reminding me of it.

 

Alan

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  • 8 months later...

It's snake migration time of year again. Better start putting plans in place tout suite (the snakes are in Canada so a little French is appropriate) if 2015 is to be your Year of the Snake!

 

 

Here's your link to updates.

http://www.naturenorth.com/spring/creature/garter/Narcisse_Snake_Dens.html

 

As of April 24, only a few snakes are out, so you have not missed a thing. Get thee to Narcisse, Manitoba in the next 2-3 weeks for a phenomenon! You'll thank me for it.

Edited by Atravelynn
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It's snake migration time of year again. Better start putting plans in place tout suite (the snakes are in Canada so a little French is appropriate) if 2015 is to be your Year of the Snake!

 

 

Here's your link to updates.

http://www.naturenorth.com/spring/creature/garter/Narcisse_Snake_Dens.html

 

As of April 24, only a few snakes are out, so you have not missed a thing. Get thee to Narcisse, Manitoba in the next 2-3 weeks for a phenomenon! You'll thank me for it.

 

~ @Atravelynn:

 

As I've had no luck in ever photographing even a single snakelet on safari, the Narcisse Snake Dens may be my best bet.

This is highly interesting. In the dim recesses of my memory I seem to have heard of this before. You make it much clearer.

Many thanks, eh!

Tom K.

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