Bucket list experiences, like so many things in life, often come down to timing. This might explain why I’ve yet to see a true Northern Lights show, or watch a crocodile play tug of war with a baby water buffalo and a lion. So while the world’s largest gathering of vertebrates is already on the Canadian Bucket List, I never happened to be passing through the blink-you-missed-it town of Narcisse in late April to catch tens of thousands of snakes emerge from underground limestone dens to slither in balls of spring ecstasy. Fortunately, I could rectify that situation this year with the fortunate coincidence that my book tour would land me in Winnipeg at exactly the same time that the Narcisse snake dens burst into serpentine life. Gathering some new friends at the Forks, we hopped into a bunch of Fords for the 130 km drive south into the prairies. As I’ve mentioned in the books on numerous occasions, the destination is often less important than the journey. Targeting the GPS to Narcisse, I cranked my Explorer’s seat massage (yes, the new Platinum Explorer gives you a back and buttock massage while you’re driving) and engrossed myself in conversation with fellow passengers. I believe it was Monique, a popular local fashion blogger, who told me the closest she’s come to snakes is through a pair of snakeskin boots. I explained I once owned a pet snake, and how it went missing, resurfacing weeks later from a hole in my hi-fi. I renamed her Sony. Before long we had arrived in Narcisse, only we had blinked, and we missed it. A sign reading Snake Dens showed a symbol of a person with binoculars, which I misread as arrows, and thus we found ourselves driving off-road in search of the mythical dens. I switched on the Explorer’s 4×4 mode with the simple turning of a knob, but it quickly became clear that we were more off than roading. Fortunately a truck approached from the other direction. I rolled down the window, and asked which way was New Brunswick. Disarmed by that confusion (and likely my accent), I explained that we were actually looking for tens of thousands of harmless red garter snakes because it’s something that belongs on The Great Canadian Bucket List. Two things I’ve learned: One should never pass up the opportunity to ask a stranger for directions, or the opportunity to use a toilet. Turns out we had to backtrack to the asphalt road, take the next two rights, and voila – a large sign appeared indicating we had arrived at the right spot. Journey enjoyed, now to the destination.
There are four dens in the area, linked by a 3-kilometre interpretive trail. Dave Roberts from Manitoba Wildlife was on hand to lead us into the picturesque prairie thicket. The area’s landscape is so different to that I’m familiar with in British Columbia. The aspen bush and grassland beamed beneath the unusual light that accompanied the passing of a toothless storm. First impression of the snakes: they’re small, but make up for it in numbers. Well camouflaged, the more you look at the ground, the more you see. Protected by a fence, the first den was seething with snakes rolling all over each other. Up to 100 small males tangle themselves around a solitary female to rub their chins in a courting ritual, creating a mating ball that shifts and falls around the den. Dave brings over a snake and lets us hold him. He’s smooth and despite the purveying mythology of evil, exceptionally cute. Somewhat agitated, the little guy calmed down when I applied a little firmness to my grip, a trick I learned from my pet corn snake days. Even the folks who were terrified of snakes held the little guy, and quickly realized that these harmless constrictors are about as terrifying as a gummy worm.
I took particular delight watching kids encounter the snakes for the first time. Much like sharks, snakes are particularly misunderstood creatures that tend to provoke unnecessary terror in human beings. Meaningful bucket lists should bust harmful myths. A highlight of my visit to Narcisse was watching misconceptions broken down by the slithering stares of a curious red garter snake. Within a couple weeks, the garters will spread out over the prairies for the summer, feasting on frogs and insects, before returning to the dens in the fall, mating once more, and vanishing into the labyrinthine sinkholes below. As the temperatures plummet, they’ll huddle together, slowing their metabolism down to survive the sub-zero prairie winter, their biological clocks synched to the forces of nature. Timing, after all, is everything.