Reposting because this annual event is occurring right now! Find other interesting Manitoba excursions on my Day Tripper page.
It is one of those late April anomalies: 25 degrees C with a warm south wind, the kind of day that entices red-sided garter snakes from their cool winter dens.
In the Interlake on Highway 17, just north of the village of Narcisse, one of the largest populations of garter snakes in Canada is beginning its spring mating ritual. That is what I’ve come to see.
I’ve come to face a fear too. Ever since a small lime-green snake wriggled out of a crate of bananas in our general store when I was five years old and startled me to hysteria, I’ve feared snakes. Raised in a rural area but long a city dweller, I’ve recently reawakened my connection to nature. Hiking and camping in remote areas, I still find bears, wolverines and black widow spiders frighten me much less than snakes. The dry rustle of a snake in the grass raises the hairs on my neck instantly. Today is a good day to face that fear.
In the parking lot, a friendly Conservation officer gives out pamphlets and information about the snakes. An easy 3 km trail is designed so four snake dens can be viewed. At the first site, a snow fence separates the many human visitors from the den opening.
The sinkhole is in a stand of poplars, its rocky entrance covered with bright green moss in contrast to the brown wintered leaves and the darker highlighted greens of the snakes as they slide with keen grace.
Having overwintered below the frost line in deep caves eroded into the limestone bedrock, garter snakes emerge to mate. Starting in mid April for about four weeks, male snakes gather at the mouth of the dens waiting for females. As each female emerges, she is immediately beset with eager males, forming a mating ball.
Female garter snakes are easy to spot as they are thicker and longer than males. As I stand and watch, a female emerges from the darkness. With amazing speed dozens of males slither to engulf her. Moving over dry leaves and twigs, the snakes make a low static crackle, the appropriate soundtrack to their urgent impassioned dance.
Hundreds of males swarm about the female, a frenzied tangle that moves across the ground, over stones and around trees. Two more mating balls suddenly appear, snakes seem to materialize out of nowhere.
The snakes have drawn a good crowd on this warm Sunday. Small children react with either silent awe or curious delight. A German man, talking excitedly, holds a snake up to his companion who looks on in disgust. A white-haired woman squeals in fear, saying how much she dislikes snakes. Her shrieks mix with the joyous cries of her grandchildren as they interact with the critters. A crackle of ancient fear arises in me when a small male slithers over the toe of my boot.
Oblivious to our fears and our presence the preoccupied snakes mate on. The Eros of all those fleshy bodies entwined in procreativity is almost palpable. The spring air is rich with the aromas of thawed earth. The trees are early budding; the poplars give off their sticky smell.
It is a pleasant stroll along the trail in the warm sun. At each den, mating balls have formed, the biological imperative fully engaged. At one stop, a large ball of snakes has climbed four feet up a poplar sapling. Like a drop of water, the ball splashes snakes when it falls. Within a few seconds the ball re-forms and rolls away.
Once mated, female garter snakes disperse over an area of 30,000 hectares to have their live young in one of the many marshes or rocky bluffs that make excellent snake habitat. Some travel 25 kms or more from the dens. When all the females have mated and gone, the males leave as well.
Because they are cold-blooded, snakes must follow the cycle of the seasons closely. Adult garter snakes return to their hibernation dens when the weather begins to cool in September. Juvenile snakes stay where they summer, finding an animal burrow or crevasse that reaches below the frost line. The next fall they will migrate to a den and join thousands of their kind to overwinter.
If a mating ball has a hundred snakes in it, I try to imagine what it must look like with tens of thousands of snakes in a sleeping heap deep underground. That image leaves a thin film of sweat on my scalp as I sidestep a garter snake on my way to the car.
Did I face my fear? It was a beginning. Will I return to the snake dens? Yes, I must.
It was only a beginning.