Manitoba is famous among snake admirers for the Narcisse Snake Pits. Each spring the snakes emerge from their dens in limestone caves that reach below the frost line. They are sluggish and slow and you can handle them. The ground will have so many snakes you have to watch where you go. The town of Narcisse has turned their snake problem into a tourist attraction.
Alonsa also has migrating snakes. A couple of decades back, in an effort to get the snakes out of the local school, the Conservation District created a snake pit like the one nature made in Narcisse on a smaller scale. Each year in spring, the snakes migrate out from the “hibernaculum” and for about three weeks the town of Alonsa is full of snakes. When the fall arrives, the snakes return and for about three weeks we have snakes everywhere again. Since the migration began this fall I have been seeing snakes every day, ten to fourteen at a time, in my yard. They hang around the house and sun themselves. I have to step carefully while painting because of the snakes. The snakes are charming and lovely to me. They are nonpoisonous. You can pick them up (gently) and look at them. I usually just carefully watch them but for the picture I picked this one up and then let it go.
What I like most about these snakes is they are ferocious predators of field mice. I am phobic about mice so these snakes are my friend. During the migration I find myself dashing out onto the street to shoo the snakes off the road so the locals coming in to pick up their mail don’t run them over, accidentally or on purpose. Some of the locals react with panicky snake phobia and either run away screaming or attack these poor little creatures with shovels and rocks and do their best to kill them. I used to have to watch out for my dog Fred tormenting them. Since his tried tormenting a rattler in Florida he has developed his own phobia about snakes and he avoids them now.
The Narcisse snakes are called Red Sided Garter snakes. The ones we have in Alonsa are Yellow Sided or Prairie Garter snakes. Recent genetic evidence suggests the two are the same species and the colour difference is just a population variant.
I have really enjoyed the company of these snakes as I paint. They like to sit against the foundation of the house and absorb the heat of the sun. Each time I move my ladder the snakes scramble out of the way. I know they are just reptiles and reptiles are not supposed to be very smart, but they also act like they find my activity fascinating. When I am sitting and painting a low spot I will occasionally look up and find two or three of them, heads up, watching me. If you observe them you can see individual differences in the size of the head and width of the jaw and tiny differences in the coloured bands so I actually began to recognize curious individuals in the same area coming back to observe me again and again. Maybe activity scares up mice or bugs and they think I am about to provide them with a meal. I do know for sure that in every other rural community I have lived in, mice are a real problem. I have not even seen a single mouse in Alonsa.
And then there was the one poor little snake I accidentally painted. I was busy cleaning my brush and I turned to find a snake right next to a paint can looking up at me and it startled me so badly I leapt sideways and knocked the can of bright yellow paint over. This startled the poor snake too and it leaped sideways with a sidewinder twist right into the spilling paint. I righted the paint can and went after her but she got away, trailing yellow paint. So the poor snake ended up with a four inch wide swath of bright yellow over its middle. For the next few days I kept seeing the poor snake with yellow paint. Fortunately I used water based paint and they have scales that feel oily and water proof so each time there was less paint than the previous time and the last time I saw her, she had only the tiniest trace of yellow.
I will miss the friendly garter snakes when we head south. They have taken a lot of the boredom out of repainting my house. I like to joke I picked the yellow colour for my house to match the snakes.