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The Amazing Little Manitoba Red Garter Snake

May 7, 2008
The Manitoba red garter snake is just plumb a most amazing creature. Not only does this little 20 inch snake survive harsh minus forty (- 40) degree cold winter Canadian weather but also travel as much as 50 miles to do so.

The center for this hub of snake activity is a town called Narcisse, in the Manitoba Interlake region west of the area center of Gimli. This geographic area of Manitoba is called as such as it lies between the two major glacial lakes of Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba. What makes this area so special that in a glance you will see more snakes than anywhere else in the world - is the availability of limestone dens in the ground that serve as winter dens for the garter snakes. Although it's plenty cold outside - the snakes are able to keep warm below the frost line of the earth by retreating and hibernating in these limestone dens or "hibernacula". In essence these wintering dens are limestone sinkholes.

However all it takes is a nice warm day in early spring and watch out. You will see hundreds and hundreds of snakes pouring out onto the nearby rocks. Narcisse and the Narcisse Interlake snake pits will produce in one days sighting more snakes in one viewing than you will see anywhere else in the world. There are tens of thousand of garter snakes in the limestone pits and dens all waiting to come out.

First out in the springtime, are the male red sided garter snakes. They emerge first more or less en masse. Hundreds and even it may seem thousands may emerge all once. The females appear soon after, but singly or in small numbers. The emergence of the female garter snakes is even spread over several weeks.

As each female garter snake appears at the surface she will be "mobbed" by male suitors. "Mating balls " are formed , consisting of a single female garter snake intertwined with as many as 100 males, each very determined. The females are able to signal to the male garter snakes both their location and availability through chemical odors and signals released through their skins.

This is all quite a sight and very exciting. What is the best time and place to view the springtime spectacle of the march of these Manitoba red garter snakes? The Narcisse Snake Den Area is located 130 km, or basically an hour an half north from the major center of Winnipeg. Alternatively its half an hour west of the centers of Gimli and Winnipeg Beach.

The Narcisse Snake Dens themselves are located just off the Highway # 17, six kilometers north of the town itself.

Finally what are the best viewing times of the year? Alternatively there is the fall return of the garter snakes to the limestone dens, as well as the spring emergence.

For the spring time viewing events the latter part of April and the first three weeks in May are generally the best times to visit the Narcisse Snake Dens. During this time period the snakes are preoccupied with their business of mating and are easily approached and viewed by visitors and tourists alike. If you can try to arrive you're with the disappearance and melting of snow and the first few hot sunny days of spring. Do not be discouraged if the snow is already gone in Winnipeg city. The snow and cold will linger in the Manitoba Interlake regions due to the major cooling effects of the two major lakes - Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba. Spring will come several weeks later in the Narcisse snake den area. Lake Winnipeg has plenty of ice yet - it's the 10'Th largest lake in the world. Lake Manitoba is not far off in size and weather effects as well.

Lastly if you cannot make the spring snake viewing event there is always fall time. At this point the snakes have fattened up over the winter and are getting ready for the winter hibernation. The snakes will arrive at the pits long before it gets cold. Snakes are cold blooded and will get sluggish in the colder fall weather. Nature has taught them to make the journey to the limestone winter dens ahead of time. The garter snakes will return to their dens in early September. Once there they will remain active and available for your viewing for several weeks until the cool, wet autumn weather signals for them to traverse the limestone cracks to the hibernation wintering dens. Of course it's best to try to choose to view the returning fall garter snake spectacle during the warm and sunny days. That way it's more pleasant for you as well as the snakes.
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