• A red-sided garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) flicks its tongue in Narcisse, Man., which is like a form of smelling. (Photo: Paul Colangelo)
    A red-sided garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) flicks its tongue in Narcisse, Man., which is like a form of smelling. (Photo: Paul Colangelo)

It may sound like a nightmare for ophidiophobes — people with a fear of snakes — but the Narcisse snake dens are one of Manitoba’s most popular seasonal wildlife attractions. Each year, 35,000 visitors travel to this protected area to not only see but also hear and interact with some of the 50,000 red-sided garter snakes in their natural habitat.

The Narcisse Snake Pits Wildlife Management Area consists of four active snake dens (out of seven in total), joined together by a three-kilometre trail developed specifically for tourists that allow visitors to get close to the snakes. The site is about 110 kilometres north of Winnipeg, far enough away from cities and towns to avoid being affected by noise and light pollution.

There are two brief periods when the snakes can most easily be seen slithering around.

In the springtime, from the end of April to around the third week of May, the reptiles emerge from hibernation out of their dens to participate in their annual mating ritual, during which time they can frequently be seen in “mating balls.” This phenomenon is when each female snake is surrounded by up to 100 males trying to convince her to mate with him. After this two- to three-week period, they travel up to 20 kilometres into surrounding wetlands and feed on small amphibians.

In the fall, around the beginning of September, visitors can watch as they make the return trip to their dens. It is best to view them during warm, sunny days, until they travel back underground, in between cracks of limestone bedrock, to hibernate until the next mating period.

Because of a decrease in the snake population in the area — of about 15,000 in 15 years — the provincial government put in measures to ensure the protection of the animals. For example, it is now illegal to harass or remove any of the snakes from their habitat. Also, to decrease the large number of snakes that were being run over on the nearby highway during their journeys back to the dens, a fence was put up that guides them into tunnels. This has decreased mortality rates by 75 per cent, according to the Canadian Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Network.

To this day, the area remains the largest overwintering snake den in the world, holding more than 10 times more snakes than dens in other regions.