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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Snakes on a Plain

Well, as most of you know, I am writing this blog in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Smack-dab in the middle of the prairies of Canada. An odd thing happens just north of Winnipeg every spring, near a little town called Narcisse. Tens of Thousands of garter snakes congregate in the area, concentrating themselves in the "Snake Pits". They are protected in a wildlife management area, but are still quite accessible to anyone who has a desire to see such a thing.

When we arived in the area, I was shocked to see how many cars there were in the parking area. I estimate roughly 50 cars. We parked our own car and set off with wonder at what 10 000 snakes might look like. We were greated at the trail head by a very friendly and informative representative of Manitoba Conservation, who told us that the snakes were already active, but not as active as they would be a week from then. We thanked him and set off onto one of the trails.

The first snake pit was quite close to the parking area. It only took 2 or 3 minutes to walk there. There was quite a crowd watching the pit from a wooden observation platform. The pit itself was rimmed by a chainlink fence. I'm not sure what the purpose of the fence was, but I suspect it was to keep people out of the pit. Someone else suggested it might be to keep people from falling into the pit, but it extended quite a bit beyond the pit itself, so I think it was more aimed at the deliberate person.

There were about 3 clumps of writhing snakes in the first pit, and umpteen others not in the pit at all, but slithering through the grass and trees that surround the pit. The conservation officer had encouraged us to pick them up and get interactive, as long as we put them back down at the same spot that we encountered them. I have handled many of these guys since I was a young-un, but these guys were different. They seemed to have only one thing on their mind if you found them near the pit. They were almost oblivious to anything else. There attentions were fully focused on the rare females. The ones out in the grass or on the trees seemed a little more defensive, and some of them bit.

The females tended to be the larger ones. I'm not a herpetologist but I could tell which ones were the females because they all had 10 or more males wrapped around them, doing their best to be the ones to fertilize the eggs carried by them. They do not lay eggs though. The babies are actually born live, and are fully independant as soon as they are born.

Some of the snakes don't make it out of the pit. We are not sure how they met their demise, but I have never met a garter snake that would turn upside down. There were several upside down, some looking a little worse for wear. I suspect the birds and other creatures raided the pits for easy food during all of this.

If the wind blew the right way, the smell of the snake rose with the heat of the sun to meet our nostrels at the edge of the pit. It was quite strong. Interesting, but not pleasant. You could also actually hear the writhing of the normally silent creatures. No hissing, but just the friction of the snake bodies on eachother, and the rustle of foiliage as they moved about.

Appearently the garter snake is in-fact venomous, even though I only recently learned of this fact. Their venom is not very potent, and their mouth parts are not typically able to deliver it to a person. I have been bitten several times, including on this trip, and never been the worse for wear.

There were four pits all together at the site, and we visited all four, however only the first 3 were active that day. The other was still too cold and wet.

All in all, it was a very interesting visit. Well worth the trip.

On our way out, we stopped for a bite to eat at Rosie's Diner in Inwood, MB. They have delicious chicken fingers, with honey dill sauce, amoung other things. They are just down the street from the Inwood roadside attractions "Sarah and Sam", the giant statue of two garter snakes on a rock pile. We took some photos of the statue, and met a genuine snake breeder from Iowa who showed us how to really tell the difference between a male and a female snake. I'll spare you the details, but it was interesting to have met him at the site. He was quite enthused about the whole situation. I don't blame him. His kids were having a blast too.

So, if you ever get the chance, head to N 50° 30.512 W 097° 29.701 and check out Sarah and Sam, and the nearby snake pits, in the Spring and Fall. It's quite a sight. Unless your name is Indiana Jones.

Till next time,


Friday, May 8, 2009

Mirages over Winnipeg

On May 3rd I was privy to a rare sight in the skies over Winnipeg. The French Air Force had eight Dassault Mirage 2000s and two KC-135 Stratotankers in Alaska for Exercise "Red Flag". On their way back home they landed in Winnipeg to refuel. I was there with my camera.

The jets looked, at first, like a flock of birds far off over the horizon. Tiny in the sky. But they moved in perfect formation, turning slowly towards the airstrip. They came in, all together, for a slow pass over the strip, in a racetrack pattern. One pass over the strip, I presume to check it out before landing. One at a time they peeled each ship from the formation, coming straight down the pipe over my head. I ran off to one side to get a better view. I could not contain my excitement, shouting things that I don't remember now, at my girlfriend.

You can see the nozzle with a basket sticking out the rear of the KC-135 that mates with the nozzles in front of the canopies of the fighters.

Red Flag is an annual, two week gathering of multiple nation's air-force representatives, for the purposes of training together, and learning from each-other in a role playing environment.