Snake charmers Tagging along on a trip to Narcisse Snake Dens with curious students from Winnipeg Beach School

A bright yellow school bus pulls into the parking lot, and two species prepare to collide: Homo sapiens and Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis. Little kids, and even littler snakes.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/05/2022 (300 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A bright yellow school bus pulls into the parking lot, and two species prepare to collide: Homo sapiens and Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis. Little kids, and even littler snakes.

“Are you ready to be wildlife explorers?” teacher Shannon Torcia asks shortly after the children – some of whom wear binoculars draped around their tiny necks — rush down the steps.

One little student, whose name happens to be Gage Little, wants one thing, and one thing only, out of this field trip. The nine-year-old student at Winnipeg Beach School wants to touch a snake. He wants one piece of living, breathing spaghetti to wrap itself around his wrist, slither gently up his arm, lift its head, stick out its splintered tongue, and greet him with a hiss. He and his schoolmates came to the right place.

“I would really just like to see how it feels,” he says.

Little, who is quite tall, is at the Narcisse Snake Dens, which depending on your disposition could either be the most magical place on earth or the most spine-tingling. The dens are home to the largest concentration in the world of red-sided garter snakes, who spend their winters comfortably squished betwixt and between slabs of limestone, submerged beneath the ice and snow in a state of seasonal bromation.

Until the weather warms. That’s when tens of thousands of snakes emerge as if the starting gun for a reptilian marathon had just been fired. They are not racing toward a finish line, per se, but they are competing with one another for a different prize: they want to mate. Dozens of male snakes and one female snake wrap themselves into mating balls, which look like instant ramen before the broth. Johanna Robson, a wildlife interpreter, does an admirable job explaining it all to her pint-sized charges.

“At this time of year, all of the snakes get into a big snake party, with one female and lots of boy snakes,” she says. “They are trying to mate so the female can have babies in the summer. It’s what they like to do. It’s a great opportunity to meet new snakes or maybe even find the snake of their dreams. Does anyone have any questions?”

The kids of Winnipeg Beach School have a lot of the answers already. They know they’re in the snakes’ homes. They know to watch their step. They know the female snakes are bigger than the male ones. They know these snakes in particular are not poisonous. And they know how to pick them up.

Young Zachary Bogaard gives a demonstration. “You need to get close to the ground,” the boy says, crouching down and sounding like an experienced interpreter himself. You need to pick it up near its head and from its middle. You have to be gentle. “The bones are very fragile,” Zachary explains.

“Alright,” the teachers yell after giving a few ground rules. “Do you think you’re ready to see some snakes?”

● ● ●

Seeing snakes is harder right now than any year in recent memory. An extremely cold winter and a late spring pestered by consistent precipitation delayed the annual snake extravaganza, says regional wildlife manager Pauline Bloom.

Of course, that comes with an asterisk: the last two years, the snake dens have not been open to the public because of COVID-19. While humans had to physically distance, the snakes did the opposite. But what happens if a snake crawls out and nobody is there to see it?

This year, it’s been slow. While the snakes of Narcisse usually begin their breeding by the middle of May, this year there was so much standing water that by the end of the month one of the four dens was still submerged.

Climate has a direct impact on the snakes’ behaviour, Bloom says. Unpredictable weather events can alter mating and migration patterns, as well as diet. They go with the flow. “The snakes are fairly resilient,” she says. They make do.

Wildlife interpreter Gary Chikousky, who has worked at Narcisse for 19 years, has never seen a year quite like this one. (Asked if he likes snakes, he says, “I don’t have any problem with them.”). He understands the lack of activity can be a tad upsetting to visitors who’ve seen the videos — giant balls of slithering flesh rolling rhythmically in the pits — “the National Geographic stuff” as he calls it.

Regardless, there’s still something fascinating about the way humankind and snakekind commingle and intermingle at Narcisse, which serves as a stark reminder of the variety of life that shares the same land. Perhaps it’s the proximity: the snakes live an hour and a half away from a city where people dominate. Perhaps it’s the unexpectedness: Snakes!? Here!? Perhaps, it’s the romance, if you could even call it that.

More likely, it’s what the snakes make us do, or rather, who we become when we see them slither by. Eight-year-old Nicholas Tetrault was ecstatic to have seen 31 snakes with his grandfather Axel Thiem. Nearby, Bill Rolsky, 76, was utterly giddy as he raced to catch up with his gang on the way to the pits. “Alright,” he shouted. “Let’s go find us some snakes!”

Whether they make us cower in fear or coo with delight, snakes make kids of us all.

• • •

When they arrive at the first pit, the children of Winnipeg Beach School anxiously search for creatures. Some have held snakes before — peer leader Zoee Taylor, 12, used to have one as a pet but “he died from maple syrup” — but most haven’t. They wonder what it will feel like. Robson, the wildlife interpreter, is about to show them.

“Can I touch it? Can I touch it? Can I touch it?” kindergartener Ellie Binder-Strachan asks, kindly reaching out her hands. The snake cranes itself down onto her arm. “He loves me! He loves me! And I love him!”

Allie Oelkers takes a finger and touches the snake’s skin. “He’s squishy!”

Lux Moncado proudly announces she saw the snake’s guts. “I did.”

“I wasn’t afraid to touch the snake,” says Violet McColl, 5. “I used to come here when I was little.”

Tucker Pona, who’s celebrating his sixth birthday at Narcisse, liked the reptiles, but wouldn’t want to be a snake himself. “I’m more of a cat person,” he says.

Gage Little is rendered somewhat speechless by the experience of touching a red-sided garter snake. “I touched a snake!” he says after the snake crept away. “It was … nice. It felt smooth. I want to hold one now.”

“I touched a snake… It was… nice. It felt smooth. I want to hold one now.” – Gage Little

The children continue on their tour, scouring the ground for more snakes before the trip ends. In the pits, snakes can be spotted. On the trails, there are slim pickings.

After eating their lunches, the kids sit for a group picture to commemorate the day. “1… 2… 3… SNAKES,” they shout. “1… 2… 3… NARCISSE.”

Before climbing to the bus, Gage Little makes a promise to himself.

“Next time I’m here, I’m going to hold one.”

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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