Hibernation weather?

Unless you live in a cave, you’re likely well aware that, although it’s only early autumn, Old Man Winter has already reared his ugly head for the first time here in the Red River Valley. If the last sentence doesn’t apply and you do live in a cave, you’re hereby excused from reading any further; you’re already one step ahead of the game.

Yes, the weather outside is frightful again, and yes, some folks embrace the thought of a long, cold winter. Others like me, lacking the comfort of a vacation home in Tahiti, shake our heads at them and joke about how we’d rather hibernate until spring. Well, we’re not the only ones on the bandwagon. Many of our animal neighbors have already made their preparations for sleeping the winter away. When we think about hibernation, we tend to think first of bears. Lots of other animals hibernate as well, so read on as I introduce you to a more unusual hibernator.

A few hours north of Grand Forks, or about 90 minutes past Winnipeg, is the small town of Narcisse, Manitoba. While its population of humans may only number in the double digits, its population of another species skyrockets to over 100,000 at this time of year. Red-sided garter snakes slither in from all directions – not to take advantage of Narcisse’s winter climate (which, lest you be wondering, is anything but tropical), but rather for its underground amenities. You see, Narcisse, as well as most of the surrounding region, is underlain by limestone. Over time, this limestone has been eroded by acidic rainwater, which has led to the formation of caves and sinkholes. These have given the snakes easy access to an ideal, comfy haven below the frost line where they can sleep through the brutal cold of a Manitoba winter and reemerge once spring brings warmer days.

Image courtesy of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

While a herptophobe like me would cringe at the idea of happening upon even one snake, the thought of seeing 100,000 of them excites many others. So many others, in fact, that the wildlife branch of Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship has set up a viewing site, complete with parking and trails, just north of Narcisse along Highway 17.

Image courtesy of NatureNorth.com – Manitoba’s online nature magazine

This unusual attraction has been named by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) as one of its “Seven Wonders of Canada.” Even U-Haul has taken notice of the snake dens, placing images on some of its trucks that let word of this unique site slither all across North America.

Image courtesy of uhaul.com

Since we’re talking about hibernation, it should come as no surprise that activity at the viewing site is winding down now since the recent cold weather has driven the snakes underground. However, if you’re brave enough, Narcisse may well be worth a visit for you in the spring when they come back out. As for me, I’ll be hibernating until they’re safely back underground.

-Mike Lanciki

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