It's May in Wood Buffalo National Park and the red-sided garter snakes are coming out of hibernation. Mating is the first order of business. As many as 30 males curl up into tangled balls as they surround one female and compete for her affection. Visitors who have come to watch can't tell where one snake ends and another one begins.
The park, which straddles the Alberta-Northwest Territories border, is the most northerly winter home of the red-sided garter snake. About 500 reptiles hibernate in karst limestone caves from early September until late April. They emerge near the beginning of the Karstland Interpretive Trail at Wood Buffalo's Salt River Day Use Area.
About 200 visitors from the nearest community of Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, drive out to the snake pits over the course of several weekends to watch the reptiles curl up into mating balls. Once the females have mated, they head off to their summer feeding grounds. The males stick around the Salt River Day Use Area until no more females emerge from hibernation.
Then it's time to eat. Once the annual three-week mating ritual is complete, the snakes slither away to a swamp just outside the park to dine on small minnows, mice and frogs for the summer. "They haven't eaten since before Halloween," Wood Buffalo's external relations manager Mike Keizer tells a three-year old who is eyeing a snake.
"Imagine being that hungry?"
Parks Canada staff ensures that visitors stay off the mating grounds and only touch the snakes the staff handles. Interpreter Ria Coleman reaches down and gently scoops up a snake ambling by on its own. She straightens up and the red-sided garter snake turns its head. "Do you want to touch the snake?" she asks a little boy. He reaches over and strokes the reptile, clearly mesmerized. "Stroke him in his middle, it will calm him down," she says.
A gaggle of kids crowd around to watch. In the spirit of springtime romance, a woman holds the snake's wiggling body and pretends to pucker up for the camera. Then, in the tradition of her reptile sisters, she leaves once the courtship is complete.