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Go anywhere near Narcisse, Manitoba in the spring or fall and be prepared to find the region alive with thousands of slithery, writhing, red-sided garter snakes. Over 70,000 emerge in the spring after spending the winter hibernating in what locals call the “snake pits”. In the fall, just as many of the creepy crawlers return to a series of local lime pits to prepare for winter.

Narcisse, Manitoba is a small Canadian farming community about 150 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Local residents lay claim to the fact that the limestone pits are unlike anything else found in the world. Biologists and herpetologists agree. Many of them come from neighboring provinces and the United States to not only study the rare sight of so many snakes in one location but also their mating and migration habits.

The snake pits of Narcisse are a network of caves and crevasses formed by underground water and collapsed limestone, and the perfect location for hibernating snakes. The pits shelter them from winter temperatures that sometimes dip as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius. Only by congregating below frost lines are the garter snakes able to survive the harsh prairie winter.

Once the weather turns warm enough in the spring the serpents slither forth for another season to perform a fascinating mating ritual. Males commonly emerge from the dens first and lay in wait at the entrances for the chance to mate with the first available female. When she finally rouses herself from hibernation she’s energetically pursued by an admiring band of males. She quickly becomes entangled in a large “mating ball”. This single female is at the centre or the lead of the ball, which resembles a writhing blob of spaghetti. She’s also easy to spot -- adult females are larger than males in length and in body thickness.

Once “the deed” is done the snakes wriggle away in all directions for the summer. The females produce around 20 young per litter. Oddly enough these “juveniles” spend their first winter in close proximity to where they were born. They seek winter refuge in abandoned animal burrows, ant hills or any other shelter that takes them well below the frozen ground. Only during their second year do they migrate to a den site and then return to it year after year. Scientists believe that snakes home in to these established dens by using scent trails. However, marking of snakes has indicated that certain ones will use alternate dens.

The Narcisse snake pits are protected by Manitoba Conservation and are also a popular tourist and school field trip destination. It’s estimated that as many as 20,000 people come to the area each year. Visitors will find many orientation signs to guide them and also a 3 kilometre walking trail that winds through native grassland and aspens groves.

For spring viewing, the end of April and the first 3 weeks in May is the best time to see the garter snakes. During this time they are in their "mating frenzy” and tolerate approaching visitors. It’s wise to leave the females alone during this time, however. Viewing in the fall is
best done in early September as this is the time the snakes begin returning to the pits. If it’s sunny and warm, they stay active and visible around their dens. Once cool, wet weather moves in they disappear underground. Viewing platforms have also been erected for those who are less fond of snakes and wish to keep their distance!

On a negative note, thousands of snakes end up as road kill each year. The government and local residents are working together to build a series of snake culverts under the main highway. Officials say if they work, there are plans to build more underpasses to protect the serpents.

If ever in the vacinity of the tiny town of Narcisse, Manitoba in the early spring or fall, stop in for a while, pack a picnic lunch, and take the short drive out to the limestone pits. Put aside any snake phobias and then spend the day communing with nature and the thousands and thousands of slithering,crawling red-sided garter snakes that mate and hibernate at the Snake Pits of Narcisse.