Narcisse Snake Dens and Canadian Museum for Human Rights

I’d been looking forward to this day for about six months, ever since I first heard about the Narcisse Snake Dens in Manitoba. This is an area that has the largest congregation of snakes in the world. In the autumn, thousands of Red-sided Garter Snakes converge on this area and slip through the cracks in the limestone to huddle together and sleep through the long winter.

In spring, the snakes emerge, have an orgy, then go off to eat (they haven’t eaten for about six months) and, in the case of the females, lay their eggs. Then they come back again when the weather gets cold.

When I booked this one-day trip to Winnipeg, I knew it would be risky. The Conservation Manitoba website updates the status of the snakes on its website. Usually the last week of April and the first three weeks of May are the best time, with the peak being the Mother’s Day weekend (10 May this year). While I’d booked the flights a few weeks ago, I was pleased to see that on 30 April, the website showed they were out and about. I was excited.

My excitement dimmed when I checked the weather on Wednesday. Rain. Continuous rain. Snakes aren’t fans of the cold and rain would only make it worse. I boarded my 6:30am flight (which meant up before 5) feeling like I was going to be disappointed.

The flight was quick and less than half-full. I think I slept. We came through heavy clouds when we descended. It was not looking good. Once on the ground, I picked up my little hire car and set off for the Narcisse Snake Dens.

Snakes, Snakes, Snakes

It was a 1.5 hour drive, which was at times scary because of the trucks coming the other way. Their tyres would churn up enough water to completely cover my car and obscure my vision. This was when the rain was at its worst. There were periods when it stopped and I clung to this scrap of hope.

When I arrived, there was one other car there. The woman in the car got out when I did. She worked for Conservation Manitoba and she confirmed that today was not a good day to visit. Did I have time to come back another day? Sadly not. She suggested I check out the first den to at least get an idea but other than that, I’d be lucky to see a snake on a day like this.

I set off. There is a 3km loop that takes you past four dens. The first den I wasn’t really sure it was a den, but there was a boardwalk, some interpretation, and then a leaf-covered depression in the ground. I didn’t look very hard but I didn’t see anything moving. I decided to continue on.

I had some luck at den 2 and the longer I looked, the more snakes I saw. In total, I probably saw 8–10 snakes. Some were moving, some were keeping still, some were dead (which was probably why I kept getting a smell of a dead something wafting up. I watched them for a while. Even though they’re small, non-venomous and quite docile, I still got a little scared looking at them. I kept looking down at my feet to make sure one wasn’t climbing up my boot. Amazing how inbuilt that fear of wild snakes is.

I wanted to continue to the third and fourth den but before I got much farther down the path, the rain started up. I could see the carpark so decided to head back and wait it out. Interestingly, on the path back were a lot of earthworms. They were all emerging to take advantage of the rain. I’ve never seen so many earthworms like this out in the wild. (We had a worm farm at home but that’s different.)

Once back in the car, the rain really started to come down. I waited for 45 minutes but there was no reprieve. Even if the rain did stop, I wouldn’t be treated to the sight of a mass of snakes that I had been hoping for. With a little disappointment, I headed back to Manitoba, wondering if I’d ever get the chance to go again.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights

After a quick lunch at The Forks Market (where I ordered a chicken salad but they forgot to include the chicken), I visited the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. I’d first heard about this museum when I visited Winnipeg the first time in March 2014. It wasn’t open then, and it wasn’t open when we were here the second time, but now, it was open!

I got in there at about 2:15pm and had until 5pm. Surely, I thought, knowing my patience levels, 3 hours would be enough. I was wrong! I could have easily spent another hour in there, if not longer.

The building itself is so interesting from an architecture point of view. I’m not sure exactly what it’s supposed to look like but to me it looks like a candle flame, which makes me think of Amnesty International. There are eight levels, all connected with a ramp, stairs or elevator.

Each floor covers a different topic, such as the development of human rights from a historical point of view, human rights in Canada, genocide and the Holocaust, and the continuing fight for human rights around the world. The exhibits are all well put together, thought-provoking and engaging. There’s a lot of technology in play here, with audio, video, and interactives, but it didn’t feel overdone at all. It felt just right.

I was moved at various points through the exhibitions, and learned a lot about Canadian history. I didn’t know about the PLQ attacks in the 70s and the government’s military response. Scary! There were (and continue to be) a lot of things that still need to be fixed in Canada, but they at least have made a good attempt at human rights for its people. However, I was stunned to learn that Canada had its own version of the Stolen Generation. Hearing those stories was heartbreaking.

I also learned that Jews in Germany only made up 1% of the population prior to World War Two. That’s one percent, yet this small group of people were made scapegoats and suffered the most awful fate. I couldn’t help but draw comparisons with Australia’s current asylum seeker policy and those refugees who arrive by boat. A small number of people, demonised in the media and by the government, and locked up in concentration camps detention centres. You’d think we’d have learned by now.

By the time I got to the fourth level, I only had 45 minutes left. The guide recommended I head up to the 8th and top level to get a look at the view. I followed his advice. It’s a very small viewing area that provides a nice vista of Winnipeg. It’d be better if the day wasn’t so grey, and I bet in the sunshine the place just must sing with light.

I took the stairs down to the 7th level which was a nerve-wracking experience. There are about five flights of stairs between the two levels and you walk down through the bones of the building, and can see down, down, down on either side. I had to focus on my feet or else I’d never would have been able to get down.

I had to rush through floors 7 through 5. There was a fun game on the fourth level where you had to collaborate with various different groups and organisations and try to get them to support your goal of starting an inner-city sports team for Indigenous kids. It was hard work. Even harder in real life. Unfortunately I didn’t get to spend as much time in the genocide display as I would have liked (what an odd thing to write), but I’d read a book called A Problem From Hell that covered the whole sorry mess.

By that stage, the museum was closing and I had to leave. All in all it’s an excellent museum and well worth a visit. It would be good if there were one (or multiple) in other capital cities, especially ones with much larger populations like Toronto (for Canada) or New York. I’d also like to see an exhibition on the effect multinational corporations are having on human rights and how that erosion is being countered (where it is being countered). This museum was largely based around governmental stories, but that’s as expected.

I then got back in the car and drove to the airport. I was about two and a half hours early for my flight but I had dinner, updated my blog and then boarded the plane. The flight was fine and quick. It was a beautiful time to fly as it was sunset and the light on the wings was stunning. I’m glad I had a window seat.

I landed sometime after 11pm and was home just before midnight, glad to tumble into bed.

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