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Snakes Alive! A Reptilian Close-up in Saskatchewan’s Fort Livingstone

Saskatchewan, Fort Livingstone Historic Site, snakes, garter snake

Watch your step! A photographer isn’t shy about getting the good side of red-sided garter snakes at Fort Livingstone Historic Site near Pelly, Saskatchewan. (Photo courtesy of Robin and Arlene Karpan)

Being surrounded by thousands of writhing reptiles can be both mesmerizing and a bit unsettling. Either way, this annual orgy ranks among nature’s great springtime spectacles. It takes place at Fort Livingstone National Historic Site in eastern Saskatchewan where massive numbers of red-sided garter snakes stream from their underground hibernaculum and immediately start mating in earnest. And they certainly aren’t shy about it.

Arriving at the historic site, we park the car and walk the 100 metres or so towards the banks of the Swan River. No signs direct the way, though an informal path through the grass makes it clear where other visitors have walked. We hear the snakes before we see them, a strange muffled rustling coming from the bushes near the valley rim. As we approach they are suddenly all around us, slithering across the grass, around rocks, and even wriggling up some of the shrubs. Groups of different sizes have already formed mating balls, while others seem to be scurrying every which way. Yet this is nothing compared to what we find over the valley rim.

Saskatchewan, Fort Livingstone Historic Site, snakes, garter snake

A little privacy, please? Masses of red-sided garter snakes congregate to form mating balls, in which up to a hundred male snakes vie for a single female. (Photo courtesy of Robin and Arlene Karpan)

On the slopes of the riverbank, we watch thousands of snakes emerge from their underground dens and really get the orgy going. More and more join the bedlam, forming knotted masses so complex that it’s hard to imagine how they become untangled. Concentrations grow in size and sometimes break into smaller groups. When a mating ball gets large enough, it rolls down the slope like some slow-motion reptilian waterfall. If a cluster of snakes comes towards us and we don’t move, they simply slither over our boots and continue on their way.

We come here expecting to see a lot of snakes. That wasn’t the case with visitors almost a century and a half ago who unknowingly built the most important institutions in western and northern Canada smack dab on top of this massive hibernaculum.

Saskatchewan, Fort Livingstone Historic Site, snakes, garter snake

A marker at Fort Livingstone National Historic Site marks the original headquarters and first post built specifically for the North-West Mounted Police, Fort Livingstone was erected in 1874. It provided facilities for 185 men and their mounts and included a residence for a stipendiary magistrate. (Photo courtesy of Robin and Arlene Karpan)

Shortly after their historic March West in 1874, the North-West Mounted Police chose this spot as the force’s first headquarters. For two years it also served as the first capital of the North-West Territories while permanent government buildings were being constructed in Battleford. In its heyday, Fort Livingstone presided over half of the land mass of Canada — and a hot bed for snakes.

For most of the year, the snakes keep a low profile. They disperse for the summer, and in winter they stay snug in their underground burrows. But come spring, all hell breaks loose as they emerge en masse to continue their age-old mating rituals. Early journals from the fort make references to snakes getting into everything and causing quite a fuss. Mounties organized snake-catching contests to help pass the time.

When conflicts occur between people and wildlife, it’s usually the wildlife that loses out. But not this time. Fort Livingstone is long gone, with only a monument and a few interpretive plaques as reminders of its former glory. The snakes have endured and now have the place to themselves. Every spring they continue to gather by the thousands and are ready to party.

Saskatchewan, Fort Livingstone Historic Site, snakes, garter snake

Plains garter snakes live throughout southern Saskatchewan and are often found close to water where they can find frogs and toads to eat. (Photo courtesy of Robin and Arlene Karpan)


Additional Info: The Fort Livingstone website features details on planning your visit.

Fort Livingstone is near the village of Pelly, about 110 kilometres (68 miles) northeast of Yorkton. Head straight north of the village for about five kilometres (three miles) then follow the signs. The historic site is extremely basic and low key, with the only infrastructure being the historic monument, picnic tables, and an outhouse.

The snakes’ mating phenomenon takes place in early May, with the prime-time coinciding more or less with Mother’s Day. So if you’re looking for somewhere memorable to take mom on her special day, this will be a memorable location.