NARCISSE, Manitoba – Tokyo has its cherry blossoms, the Netherlands has its tulip fields, and Paris offers itself. But the Canadian province of Manitoba has a remarkably distinct springtime attraction, too: tens of thousands of amorous snakes writhing around in pits.
While Manitoba’s tourist agency doesn’t promote the Narcisse Snake Dens with the same zeal as it does Canada’s national human rights museum in Winnipeg, the annual mating ritual of red-sided garter snakes nevertheless manages to draw thousands of people — snake fanciers and snakephobes alike — to an otherwise overlooked part of the province for a few days each spring.
The area around Narcisse is so attractive to snakes for the same reasons many farmers abandoned it decades ago: Its thin topsoil sits on top of limestone that water has gradually eroded underground, creating a network of small caves that can be entered through sinkholes.
In a place notoriously cold even for Canada, this is the perfect winter home for snakes.
The eruption of the snakes each spring, and the 10 days they spend cavorting in celebration, is weather dependent, and hard to predict. Clouds, cool temperatures and rain can all keep them underground.
Many years, they slither out in time to make snake viewing a popular Mother’s Day outing. This chilly spring, they emerged toward the end of May.
“It is likely the biggest concentration of snakes in the world,” said Robert Mason, professor of integrative biology at Oregon State University, who has come to Narcisse every spring since 1982.
“It’s amazing to me how many people want to see these snakes,” he said. “They are perfect ambassadors for the reptile world.”
Otherwise, Narcisse itself is a near-ghost town. The town’s most prominent features are a long-abandoned gas station next to the collapsed ruin of a house.
Scientists, including Mason, often do their research at smaller snake pit areas on private land. But Manitoba’s wildlife service has established a park around what it prefers to call snake dens — not “snake pits” — that are the winter home of an estimated 70,000 of the creatures.
The snakes are harmless to people. While they can bite, the effect is more like a head butt than a tearing of flesh.
The park, north of Narcisse, looks harmless enough. There are the usual picnic benches, interpretive panels and gravel paths winding through a stunted aspen forest and a meadow.
The hot spots are four sink holes dotted around the grounds. On a couple of days during this year’s eruption, the No. 2 snake den was the hottest of them all.
About the size of a large dining room and 10 to 15 feet deep, the den initially appears to be covered with some kind of green vegetation. But as it moves, it immediately becomes apparent it is filled with slithering snakes, most about the diameter of a marker and the largest perhaps up to 18 inches long.
At different spots in the den, larger snakes (the females, as visitors who have read the panels know) are entwined in sometimes frantically wiggling snake balls made up of smaller male snakes.
“I was a little bit squeamish at first because they are so intertwined, and it’s the slimiest carpet that I’ve ever seen,” said Janet Sustrik, a craftswoman who had made her first trip up from Winnipeg with her husband and two sons. The children skipped school for the outing.
“But then when you get to pick one up, then you realize that snakes aren’t so bad, they’re actually docile, beautiful little creatures,” Sustrik said. “I was pretty scared of snakes until I picked one up today.”
Her husband, Brian Sustrik, an emergency room doctor, compared the pit to an Indiana Jones movie. “You can’t tell where the ground is because everything on top of it is just moving and undulating.”
The park is a rare wildlife area where visitors are encouraged to handle the animals, female snakes excepted. The couple and their boys were surprised that the snakes do not feel slimy or scaly. The sensation is more like holding a piece of soft mohair that wiggles around.
“They just kind of melt into your hand,” Brian Sustrik said.
But there was an even bigger surprise. While the snakes don’t hiss or rattle, the sheer number of them rubbing against each other and the bottom of the den creates a sound Brian Sustrik said was like “the wind rustling through the trees — but louder.”
The snakes around Narcisse have not always been regarded as a natural wonder. Many of the first European settlers tried to exterminate them. They were long harvested for pet stores and companies that supply dissection subjects for schools, leading to fears in the late 1980s that the snakes’ numbers might fall dramatically.
But they are now local heroes of sorts, bringing in tourists at least once a year. The park, which is in the nearby hamlet of Inwood, sports a statue of two vastly oversized and entwined snakes named Sara and Sam.
On a recent visit to the park, the biggest attraction — for those coming solo as well as the simultaneous and chaotic arrival of two school groups from Winnipeg — seemed to be the wiggling snake balls.
Abby Tye, a student working as the site’s only interpreter, explained, as discreetly as possible, that when the snakes emerge, they are not focused on eating or on heading to their summer homes in the wetlands upward of a dozen miles away. Breeding is the only item on their agenda.
One problem: There are 100 or more male snakes for every female.
But the balls, which spontaneously form and break up, are not snake orgies, Mason said.
“This is where it gets a little sensitive,” he said. “They are trying to harass her.”
The males’ objective is to irritate the female to the point where she opens up a gland to spray a repellent odor in a bid to get rid of them. But that opening can also allow at least one of the males to copulate with her.
Visitors seemed more awed than horrified by the snake spectacle. In a highly unscientific observation, men appeared to be generally more reluctant to hold a snake than women. No such gender distinction, however, was apparent among the schoolchildren.
Pauline Bloom, provincial wildlife manager for the area, said visitors who get overwrought are usually from places where venomous snakes are an ever-present threat.
Jonathan Callipari, though, might have been the exception. He is from Australia, where snakes are often more likely to kill than fascinate, but he was delighted by the wriggling in the den.
He was driving across Canada after a stint working in Vancouver, British Columbia, as a carpenter. Narcisse was an early entry on his sightseeing list.
“You’re never going to see a den of snakes like this anywhere else I’m sure,” he said, between snapping photos. “I just sort of imagine I’ve got a David Attenborough voice-over in the back of my head as I’m watching it all. It’s definitely out of this world.”