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The return of the snakes

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Norris Lake Provincial Park

Red-sided garter snakes travel great distances every fall to return to their winter dens near Narcisse, Manitoba. Tens of thousands of these snakes migrate back to the limestone crevices that serve as winter homes, using what scientists believe are "scent trails" left by snakes travelling ahead. When fall rolls around, the central Interlake is inundated with these migratory snakes.

This week's journey lead us back to the Interlake to make two stops. The first was at Norris Lake Provincial Park. After that, we headed further north to check out the Narcisse Snake Dens. When we began this provincial park odyssey, the original plan was to visit the snake dens during the spring, when the snakes emerge from their dens and form gigantic "mating balls". However, due to changes in our schedule, we missed this brief period and the snakes had already set off for their summer habitat. We marked this past weekend on the calendar for the trip because we did not want to miss the return of the snakes to their den.

Before going to Narcisse, we stopped at Norris Lake Provincial Park. The park sits on the east shore of Norris Lake, roughly 80 kilometres north of Winnipeg, on Highway 17 and is six kilometres south of the town of Inwood. The park is pretty basic. It has a small campground, with 15 sites, including a few that are right along the lake. The park also has a day-use area and a small beach. It would be a good place to stop for a picnic, but I can't see any reason to camp for an extended period at Norris Lake.

Leaving Norris Lake, we headed north on Highway 17, passing through Inwood. Very quickly, we could tell that a mass snake migration was underway. The highway between Inwood and Narcisse was littered with the flattened bodies of snakes who were not lucky enough to make it across. Carcasses were literally everywhere. The snake migration has caused problems in Inwood in the past. Last September, an Inwood seniors' home, Inwood Manor, was infested with snakes on the return migration. Instead of going straight to their old dens, they decided to make the housing complex a new den.



The Narcisse Snake Dens are 25 kilometres north of Inwood, on Highway 17. There are four snake dens in the Narcisse Wildlife Management Area. The dens were formed when underground water eroded the limestone rock of the area. This erosion caused the surface to collapse, creating a network of caverns and crevasses in the rock. This network extends well below the frost line, making it a perfect winter home for the red-sided garter snake. In the fall, estimates of up to 50,000 snakes return to these dens resulting in the surrounding area being thick with snakes. When we were walking on the paths between the dens, snakes constantly slithered off into the bush to avoid us.

Only two of the dens appeared to be active, with snakes slithering down the rocky edges into the pits. Most congregated together on the rocks to absorb the heat of the sun. We could see some of the snakes moving deeper into the dens, preparing for their winter of semi-hibernation. When spring returns, and temperature rises, these snakes will exit the dens and form "mating balls", where one female is engulfed by dozens of males. The snakes then fan out for their summer habitat in nearby marshes, returning in the fall and repeating the process.

The snake dens would be a great place to check out in the spring or fall if you want to see this natural phenomenon that only occurs in Manitoba. However, if you suffer from ophidiophobia (fear of snakes), well maybe the Narcisse Snake Dens aren't for you.

As we move later into the fall, we're closer to accomplishing our goal of visiting all 77 road-accessible provincial parks. We only have 15 more provincial parks to visit, including such major parks as Whiteshell and Birds Hill.

Park visited in today's blog post:


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