The limestone blasts out a brilliant, white reflected light, and I'm thankful the temperatures are still moderate or it would be like a furnace. Not a cloud in sight - a perfect spring day on the Prairies.
Perfect, that is, if you like snakes.
If you like snakes - lots of snakes, slithering bundles of snakes, snakes crawling across your shoes when you stop, snakes squished flat on the highway, a giant snake sculpture welcoming you to the area - you might want to visit the area around Inwood, Man.
The town of about 200 people, 150 kilometres north of Winnipeg, is the jumping-off point to witness the emergence of the planet's largest over-wintering population of red-sided garter snakes. How many snakes are we talking about? More than 30 dens have been documented, and each den can house as many as 10,000 snakes each winter.
Every April, the snakes - males first - end their hibernation and leave their sanctuary. The deep limestone crevasses have protected them from the bitter cold, and now they are eager to leave the dark caves. They emerge from their hibernacula (snake dens) with one thing on their minds: mating.
It's a fortuitous series of events that has brought me here. I was on a visit to see my family in Winnipeg and snake-mating was far from my mind when a friend of my mom's mentioned it was a good time to see the garter snakes coming out of hibernation. And she had a hot tip: She directed me to an acquaintance in Inwood. The subsequent directions led me to a location where snake researchers work by an old quarry south of the more controlled Narcisse Snake Dens, which are managed by Manitoba Conservation.
Here, I am able to wander freely among the mass of slithering reptiles. Mating balls - squirming tangles of snakes - are everywhere on the ground and sometimes even partway up trees. Individual reptiles peer out of holes in the ground, while others slide across the dry leaves and brush against small rocks. As I stand quietly, I realize that their motion creates a subtle but distinct sound.
An Australian researcher tells me the snakes leave their dens on schedule, seemingly regardless of the weather. "One year, I saw them moving across the snow that still covered the ground," he says.
Another researcher working beside a particularly active area describes how preoccupied these serpents are with mating: "If I'm still, the snakes crawl under me to escape the sun." I soon understand his experience.
I kneel on the dusty ground trying to compose a photo amid the squirming life. Soon, I feel the smooth, silky undersides of several snakes as they glide across my bare legs. Yes, I could freak out, but it's all so non-threatening as these serpents treat me as just another part of the landscape. Besides, it feels good.
It's 4:30 p.m. and the researchers have left for the day. I am alone with a diminished number of snakes. Suddenly, the setting strikes me as bizarre - a weird mix of human presence in the midst of a wondrous act of nature. I wander over to a nearby old building, likely the former office of the adjacent quarry, that can now best be described as a bombed-out, graffiti-covered wreck.
The smell of fires lingers amid charred piles, broken bricks and empty beer bottles. This is clearly a party place for the local youth. Whether it's humans or snakes, sex is in the air. It's time to call it a day - as I have no desire to witness the local human mating rituals.
I decide to spend the night in the area, and rather than camp at an official site or stay at a motel, I follow up on an earlier invitation from some friendly locals to pitch my tent on their land, a 20-minute drive from the quarry. As the cool darkness descends, I quickly pitch my tent and dive in.
I wake up (thankfully, no dreams of snakes), shake off the morning frost that lines the inside of my tent fly and pack up my gear. I arrive back at the quarry at 9 and already the sun is warming the still air.
In about three weeks - before the end of this month - these snakes will migrate to nearby wetlands and fields for a summer of feeding. This morning, they are very active, moving quickly in mating balls, in low bushes, across my shoes and on the steep rocky cliffs. The more frenzied pace is a bit disorienting, and I have to pay more attention to each step. At times, the ground itself seems to be moving, a feeling akin to that sense of motion after being at sea for a long time.
This is a sign that it is time to move on. I've had sufficient exposure to the roiling masses, even though I have become quite fond of the red-sided garter snakes. This is a good thing, because if I did have a snake phobia, I'd have to run for the hills, and the hills are a long way from this prairie landscape.