Snakes on a plain: a visit to Manitoba’s Narcisse Snake Dens

A bucket list experience observing the world’s largest concentration of snakes

  • Mar 02, 2023
  • 939 words
  • 4 minutes
Red-sided garter snakes in the Narcisse Snake Dens. (Photo: Travel Manitoba)
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With their distinct lack of furry cuteness, forked tongues, and nefarious Biblical reputation, snakes are not everybody’s cup of tea. Many see a reptile with venomous fangs waiting to strike from dark crannies and overhead trees, stoking a reaction that spans from ickiness to panic, infiltrating the pits of our imaginations. But instead of picturing snakes as a devious species, I invite you to open your heart (and hands) to a misunderstood northern wonder. Each spring, tens of thousands of red-sided garter snakes slink out of their rocky dens in one of Canada’s great and unheralded wildlife spectacles. Welcome to the largest gathering of any snake species on Earth.

The three-kilometre interpretive trail on the way to the Narcisse Snake Dens. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Located just over an hour’s drive from Winnipeg, you’ll know you’re getting close to the Narcisse Snake Dens when you spot tunnels on either side of Highway 17. With so many snakes about, nobody wants to see serpents splattered across the asphalt. Soon enough, you’ll see a large sign and parking lot, accessing a three-kilometre-long interpretive trail. The dens consist of limestone outcrops that provide an ideal shelter for the snakes to pile atop each other, generating just enough heat to survive the long winter. When the prairies thaw, a biological alarm clock rings, and its full-tilt snakes on a plain.    

Each den is estimated to house up to 10 thousand snakes, and their annual emergence to mate is quite extraordinary. Several hundred males will surround a single female, creating a tangled serpent ball that rolls across the ground. The smothered, stronger and larger female takes off for the hills as males desperately cling on. Eventually, just a few males remain attached to the female, thereby proving themselves worthy to pass on their genes. If you know what you’re looking at, you’ll see all of this in real-time.  Manitoba Conservation, the government agency that protects the dens, has seasonal on-site interpreters to help if you don’t. Beyond the dens, you’ll find lovely grassland and forest beneath the big prairie sky. There are no gift shops.

A visitor interacts with one of the red-sided garter snakes. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Dispel your visions of pythons, cobras, or vipers. Each finger-thick red-sided garter only grows between 75 cm and 110 cm long. Simply put, Canadian snakes are not Australian snakes. Eleven of the top ten most venomous snakes in the world live Down Under.  Deadly serpents occupy a rather large space in the public imagination, although it is exceedingly rare to actually encounter one, much less be in the unfortunate position to get bitten. Having spent six months travelling across Australia, including several weeks hiking in the outback, the only snakes I saw were in wildlife parks. On the other hand, red-sided garter snakes in Manitoba are a perfect embodiment of Canada. They are harmless, curious, understatedly sweet, and very approachable. Walking along the Narcisse trails, you’ll see well-camouflaged snakes crawling about, and the more you pay attention, the more you will see. It’s also perfectly acceptable to gently pick one up.   No visitor to Australia will ever pick up a wild snake and say, “hello, eh?”

While any animal can bite to protect itself, red-sided garters have tiny teeth that won’t break skin even if they feel inclined to try. Instead, the snakes voice any displeasure with an odorous poop that tends to linger. When I picked several up, they seemed quite content to slither about my hand and arm, seemingly grateful that I was not a crow, raven, owl or hawk. Birds and other predators often kill the snakes to eat their nutrition-rich livers, leaving carcasses lying about for other scavengers. There’s just a one in five thousand chance that a red-sided garter will live to old age. Although harmless,  you’re advised to keep a close eye on the kids for the sake of the snakes, should the poor reptiles find themselves receiving too much love in a toddler death cuddle.

Red-sided garter snakes only grow to be between 75 and 100 centimetres long and have tiny teeth that won't even break human skin. (Photo: Travel Manitoba)
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Red-sided garters in Narcisse are most active from mid-morning into the afternoon, and the annual spring emergence lasts one to three weeks, typically between late April and late May. Nature North, an online Manitoban nature magazine, provides regular updates on the den status, along with directions and conditions across Manitoba’s Interlake region. Shortly after mating, the province’s most populous snake will fan out into the grassland to search of frogs, insects, and adventure. When temperatures cool again in the fall, those that survived their summer sojourn return to the dens. The snakes slow their metabolisms down, gather into a life-saving huddle, endure the winter, and the cycle repeats.    

Although largely misunderstood, Manitoba’s abundant red-sided garters are finally getting the attention they deserve. You might see them as graphical Fact #125 on U-Haul rentals. Their annual migration has slithered into expensive nature documentaries, and the dens were nominated as one of CBC’s Seven Wonders of Canada. No less a figure than Sir David Attenborough breathlessly described their “mating jamboree” in an episode of his recent BBC series, A Perfect Planet. The internet lit up with comments of both horror and delight over what one commentator described as a ‘Canadian Snake Orgy.’ Australia will always hold the title of Killer Snake Nation. With our remarkable Narcisse Snake Dens, we’ll take Love Snake Nation any day. 

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Perfectly placed within Canada’s ‘high country’, CMH Cariboos offers all the comforts of a well-appointed lodge in the middle of absolutely nowhere. With your Can Geo Ambassador, Robin Esrock, you will fly to remote viewpoints for the ultimate adventure as well as a day of travel and writing instruction. 


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