Pilgrimage to Narcisse: World’s largest snake den

Pleassssed to meet you. (photo robin summerfield)

Pleassssed to meet you. (photos robin summerfield)


Vehicles lined both sides of the highway for at least a kilometre or more.

We eased our compact SUV through the squeeze of parked cars. People walked alongside on the pavement with strollers, coolers, kids and dogs in tow.

A ride on Thomas the Train? No.

A Wiggles concert? Nope.

Folk Festival? Not even.

No, we teaming masses had made this 90-minute pilgrimage north of Winnipeg to visit a den of snakes.

Indeed, we were visiting the world’s largest population of snakes. And we were about to watch their annual mating frenzy.

Narcisse, Manitoba is a wonder of the world.

Every Spring ten of thousands of red-sided garter snakes emerge from their winter hibernation and do what feels natural.

They’ve spent months underground in limestone cracks, caves and fissures waiting out the cold. They wake up, slither topside and spend two to three weeks trying to woo available females in a feverish mating dance. The males vastly outnumber the females, who are plumper than the fellas. The boys curl around a female, trying to capture her attention in a big slithering ball. (Once mating season is over everyone disperses to the nearby marshlands for summer and return to the dens in fall.)

It looks like a bad night at the (insert any dance-club name here).

The snakes are fascinating to watch and any aversion you may have had to the reptiles is cured swiftly. The sheer volume pretty much eliminates any lingering heebie jeebies.

Visitors are welcome to pick up the snakes but they must be gentle and not take them away from the den. Interpreters walk around the three-kilometre trail to answer questions.

Their are several dens on the site. Crushed limestone pathways criss-cross the fields, leading guests to the dens. For prime viewing, pick a warm, sunny day.

We chose the warmest day in a five-day stretch to make our run to the snakes. We weren’t alone. An estimated 8,000 people had the same plan one recent Sunday in mid May.

The frenzy in the dens mirrored the frenzy of snake seekers above jostling for the best view from platforms along the trail. Toddlers, teenagers, moms, dads, grandparents and folks of every description wandered the trails.

But it was all good.

People shared their snakes, handing them off to each other and helping the squeamish get comfortable.

And no one left without seeing the snakes, a whole lot of snakes.

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Here’s a great website about the snakes; how to get to Narcisse; and what to expect. And check out Nature North’s site for additional intell on Manitoba snakes and other local creatures. 

Slim pickings for Mother’s Day brunch spots in Winnipeg


Hundreds of orange milk chocolates will be made for Mother's Day brunch at Winnipeg's Fort Garry Hotel (Robin Summerfield)

Hundreds of orange milk chocolates will be made for Mother’s Day brunch at Winnipeg’s Fort Garry Hotel (Robin Summerfield)


She gave you life and you’re trying desperately to give her a nice meal.

Good luck. Finding brunch reservations in Winnipeg for Mother’s Day this Sunday is a tall order.

Local favourites have already filled up while many others have limited space during off-peak hours.

But pick up the phone and start calling because tables can still be found in the city.

As of Thursday morning, Chaise Café and Lounge still had space available but it’s tight. Chaise has reservations for 200 confirmed but executive chef Jason Sopel expects 350 guests to come for brunch Sunday.

“It’s definitely going to be busier partly because we’ve built our reputation on brunch,” said Sopel.

Chaise is serving a $25, three-course menu featuring several salads, smoked apple wood bacon, smoked trout, scrambled eggs with mushrooms, potato croquettes, banana pancakes and cinnamon buns, among other dishes.

Sopel and his sous chef are pulling an all-nighter Saturday to make final preparations. He also vowed to keep serving brunch into the dinner hour for as long as customers want it.

Meanwhile, brunch heavyweight the Fort Garry Hotel has sold-out its 1,000 or so seats for Sunday’s main event, one of their busiest days of the year.

“We’re working harder. We’re working longer hours and everyone’s pulling together,” said Richard Warren, the hotel’s pastry chef and three-year Mother’s Day brunch veteran. His staff of nine are pumping out cakes, tarts, squares, slices, chocolates of all description.

“We’re making three or four times what we normally do,” Warren said.

Fifteen dozen cakes (in eight flavours), 20 dozen chocolates and truffles and 16 dozen lemon tarts are just a slice of what Warren’s crew will be serving. The team also makes all the bread, croissants and pastries for the hotel.

Back on the hunt for reservations, take heart: as of Thursday there were still limited seats for the taking at The Velvet Glove, Pasquale’s (dinner), Bistro 7 1/4 and Elements. But you may be eating very early in the morning or closer to dinner time.

So get cracking. Don’t forget to buy Mom a card. And next year, make reservations earlier.

Fort Garry Hotel pastry chef Richard Warren stands in the walk-in cooler amongst racks of cookies, slices, cakes and bread. (Robin Summerfield)

Fort Garry Hotel pastry chef Richard Warren stands in the walk-in cooler amongst racks of cookies, slices and cakes. (Robin Summerfield)

St. Boniface's Chaise Café will serve an estimated 500 croquettes during Mother's Day brunch. (Robin Summerfield)

St. Boniface’s Chaise Café will serve an estimated 500 croquettes during Mother’s Day brunch. (Robin Summerfield)

Fort Garry Hotel pastry chef Richard Warren pours over his to-do list. The Mother's Day brunch at the hotel attracts about 1,000 people and is one of the busiest days of the year. (Robin Summerfield)

Fort Garry Hotel pastry chef Richard Warren pours over his to-do list. The Mother’s Day brunch at the hotel attracts about 1,000 people and is one of the busiest days of the year. (Robin Summerfield)


This story first appeared on CBC Manitoba’s website Scene. Here’s a link to the original story.

Winnipeg restaurant owners roll dice on business

Clinton Skibitzky (left) and Olaf Pyttlik hope their new games-restaurant in Winnipeg's Exchange District sparks a gaming trend in the city. (Photo by Robin Summerfield.)

Clinton Skibitzky (left) and Olaf Pyttlik hope their new games-restaurant in Winnipeg’s Exchange District sparks a gaming trend in the city. (Photo by Robin Summerfield.)

New Exchange District restaurant owner Olaf Pyttlik would hate to see bored customers.

Instead, he wants customers at the boards. That’s why he’s opening Across the Board game café, a licensed eatery and games room Pyttlik hopes will fuel an emerging trend in the city.

“The market is growing and we just thought it was time for Winnipeg to have this kind of thing,” said Pyttlik.

Across the Board opens 5 p.m. on Thursday at 93 Albert Street, the former home of The Fyxx and Urban Forest.

Neither Pyttlik—a longtime games enthusiast who began collecting games as a youngster in Germany—nor his business partner Clinton Skibitzky have restaurant experience but they do own a production company.

“This is basically a crime of passion,” Pyttlik said.

For $5 per person per visit, guests will have unlimited time to play any of the estimated 700 games in the café’s library.

The duo doesn’t have the monopoly on the games room and restaurant mash-up in Winnipeg.

In early April, games café Meeplesopened inside Kay’s Deli a few blocks away. There, Meeples’ gamers take over the deli after it closes.

Winnipeg is slow to get on the board games café trend. Toronto is already home to about a dozen games cafés including Snakes and Lagers andRoll Play Café.

Meanwhile, Pyttlik is ready to roll the dice on his new business. The 45-year-old and his wife have been hosting games nights at their Wolseley-area home for years, attracting 30 to 40 players for their twice monthly party.

“We were shocked at the number of people,” he admitted. “There was a real appetite to get away from the digital experience.”


Across the Board co-owner Olaf Pyttlik stands in front of his library of board games. The games enthusiast began amassing his collection as a youngster in his native Germany. (Robin Summerfield)

Across the Board co-owner Olaf Pyttlik stands in front of his library of board games. The games enthusiast began amassing his collection as a youngster in his native Germany. (Robin Summerfield)

Old school family games likeMonopoly, Sorry and Yahtzee are stocked alongside modern games like Settlers of Catan, A Few Acres of Snow and Cards Against Humanity. (Photo by Robin Summerfield)

Old school family games likeMonopoly, Sorry and Yahtzee are stocked alongside modern games like Settlers of Catan, A Few Acres of Snow and Cards Against Humanity. (Photo by Robin Summerfield)

My story about Across the Board first appeared on CBC’s arts and culture website Scene. Here’s the link to the original story.

Why me? Why not them?


The latest post from my wicked and wickedly funny hubby Mike O’Brien.

Originally posted on The Big Diseasey:

One phrase forbidden in our home is “It’s so unfair.” Of course cancer is unfair, but saying that aloud is self-pitying and likely invokes bad kharma. There’s nothing fair about cancer. Short of smoking or using your microwave to make a roast, there’s not much people do that invites this disease.

That said, I am granting myself a one-day exception. Today, I am asking:  “Why me? Why not one of them?”

Here are ten people more deserving of cancer.

10) That guy who talks on his cell phone LOUDER than in his normal voice. Wouldn’t it make more sense to lower his voice during a private conversation? If there’s any justice, he will catch cancer from his phone.

9) Anne Hathaway. Everyone loved her, and then everyone hated her. I don’t know why, since she seems really nice, but I’ll go along.

8) Movie talkers. Every one. Cancer of the…

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Brunch in Bloom: Spring 2014 Flavours Magazine

Eggs Benedict will always be a brunch classic. (Photo courtesy Flavours magazine.)

Brunch in Bloom at Winnipeg’s Hotel Fort Garry. (Photos by Brandon Gray, Flavours magazine.)

Inside the basement bakeshop and kitchen at Winnipeg’s Fort Garry Hotel, chefs, cooks and bakers are frantically slicing and chopping, stirring and basting, moving fast to keep the hungry folks fed. No one is standing still.

To an outsider, the bustle in this cavernous kitchen seems chaotic. To the insiders – the team of cooks and chefs – this is just another day at the office. To them, the real chaos is upstairs, where 800 Sunday brunch guests are filling their plates from the more than 100 hot and cold dishes set out in the grand foyer of this 101-year-old railway hotel.

“It’s like getting ready for the big game,” says pastry chef Richard Warren.

And this is just the warmup. If a typical Sunday is the big game, then Mother’s Day is the championship game for all the glory. Come Mother’s Day – the busiest brunch of the year – the spread is scaled up and expectations run even higher as 1,000 diners ramble, plates in hand, through an epic spread in the iconic Winnipeg landmark.

Spring is the season for brunch, when Easter, Mother’s and Father’s Days, reunions, graduations, weddings and many other momentous moments are marked by families everywhere.

“Coming to brunch with your family solidifies that memory in your mind. It’s something you will remember for a long time,” says Warren.

At the hotel, fresh-baked bread, salads, carving stations and an Eggs Benedict bar are served alongside the traditional brunch must-haves of scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausages and back bacon. And dozens of desserts – cheesecakes, truffles, verrines and slices – linger sweetly in a sunlit anteroom beside the foyer.

While the Fort Garry Hotel’s brunch is a mind blower, home cooks can take a few pointers and scale it down for their own special springtime celebrations for family and friends.

Serve classic brunch dishes such as Eggs Benedict to satisfy the crowd. Choose in-season fruits and berries to add colour and a sense of spring in bloom to the table. And then take your spread in an unexpected direction with such lavish favourites as Beef Bourguignon or Seafood Newburg.

Choose recipes that strike different notes, both savoury and sweet. And remember: This hybrid breakfast-lunch meal should take diners easily to suppertime with nary a stomach growl. Serve plenty of dishes and stretch your cooking skills to make it a meal to be remembered for years to come.

As Fort Garry’s executive chef Joseph Wojakowski says, special occasion brunches are a big deal, yes, but every brunch is special. And that’s a message home cooks should take to heart as well.

“(Brunch) can be experienced anytime,” says Wojakowski, who has overseen countless brunches in his 19-year tenure at the hotel. “With the food and the ambience, we would like the people to leave the brunch with the whole experience – the service, the food, the surrounding atmosphere.”

My story appears in the Spring 2014 issue of Flavours magazine. The issue can also be found in provincial liquor stores throughout Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. 

Click on the links below for recipes.

Strawberry, white chocolate and orange verrines by Pastry Chef Richard Warren, Fort Garry Hotel. 

Saskatoon berry clafoutis by Pastry Chef Richard Warren, Fort Garry Hotel. 

Seafood Newburg by Executive Chef Joseph Wojakowski, Fort Garry Hotel. 

Classic Eggs Benedict by Executive Chef Joseph Wojakowski, Fort Garry Hotel. 

2014 Winnipeg Food Trends

If you grow it, they will come. Chef Ben Kramer of Diversity Foods inside his work-in-progress, a greenhouse. (photo by robin summerfield)

If you grow it, they will come. Chef Ben Kramer of Diversity Foods inside his work-in-progress, a greenhouse. (photo by robin summerfield)

Winnipeg’s food scene is never dull. Insiders keep the city’s food lovers satisfied with new foods and new food experiences. Winnipeg’s culture of cuisine continued to evolve in 2013, most notably with the addition of RAW:almond, the pop-up on ice, and the opening of Prairie 360˚, the city’s revolving restaurant and boutique coffee houses like Thom Bargen and Little Sister Coffee Maker. New additions, like The Grove’s Osborne Village location, are on the horizon. The coming year holds much promise too from local food purveyors, restaurateurs and chefs. Here are a few trends we’d like to see evolve in 2014 in Winnipeg.

Party Planners
Several years ago Bistro 7¼ launched School Nights, a weekly Sunday night get together at the South Osborne bistro. The party was free, everyone was invited and themes were reflected in food, drink and entertainment. The lively nights, which are still hosted each week, brought out diners of all stripes. It was (and still is) a fantastic way to spend a Sunday night meeting new people. More and more restaurateurs, chefs and foodies are introducing their own cuisine-themed parties hosted in-house or at secret locations. The professionals will look for creative ways to get bums in seats, especially on off-peak days and hours. We foodies want restaurant-hosted book clubs, themed tasting menus, food-fetes, tea parties and beer pairing dinners. If you build it, we will come.

Grow your own
University of Winnipeg’s Diversity Foods, with chef Ben Kramer at the helm, is in the midst of starting his own indoor garden on campus inside a largely abandoned greenhouse. He is one of several local chefs growing (or trying to grow) his own greens and herbs. Johnny Kien at Saigon Jon’s and Shea Ritchie at Chaise Café and Lounge have also acquired green thumbs. Sure, Manitoba has a short growing season that severally limits using local produce but we’d still like to see more kitchens putting that ‘eat local’ mantra to the test.

Small-batch food purveyors
Home-based kitcheneers, many with 9 to 5 lives, have started more small-batch, artisanal food companies in recent years. Flora and Farmer, Andorah’s Feast, Delicious Kicks are just a few newbies on the market. They sell their wares at farmers’ and makers’ markets, and boutique food shops. Taste, local ingredients and little or no preservatives are key in these jams, pickles, specialty baked treats, sauces and salsas. Quality and word-of-mouth is the key to success. There’s plenty more room in Winnipeg’s food scene for more artisanal food stuffs made by home-based foodies cum entrepreneurs. Bring on the pickles people.

Canning and Preserving
Peasant Cookery, a restaurant in Winnipeg’s Exchange District, started the in-house preserving and pickling trend. Or, in the least, they were the first business locals noticed embracing this trend. In either case, more local food emporiums are pickling, preserving and making jams to serve in-house. This annual Fall tradition preserves locally grown ingredients for service during the winter months and into spring. The jarred delicacies (pickles, asparagus, carrots and beets, berry jams et al) add new dimension to plates on cold winter days.

If you preserve it, they will come. A shelf full of pickled delights at Prairie 360˚in downtown Winnipeg. (photo by robin summerfield.)

If you preserve it, they will come. A shelf full of pickled delights at Prairie 360˚in downtown Winnipeg. (photo by robin summerfield.)

More pop-ups popping up
Secret dinners, backdoor bistros, alley burgers and supper clubs will continue to spike in 2014 as more professional foodies and food lovers get together on the side. Some pop-ups will be advertised on Facebook and Twitter and open to all. Others will remain on the down-low, skirting liquor laws and keeping those-in-the-know to a limited number. Whatever their form, pop-ups add life to a city’s food scene. The more the merrier.

Big thinkers
In 2013, Chef Mandel Hitzer and architect Joe Kalturnyk launched RAW: almond, Winnipeg’s pop-up restaurant on ice at The Forks. It was and is a resounding success. Diners came out in droves, bundled up in their finest cold-weather gear to experience some magic inside the big white tent. Winnipeg’s roster of chefs isn’t short on big thinkers with great ideas. The ongoing success of RAW: almond has opened the door for other big ideas. There have been rumblings about a winter food festival to celebrate the uncelebrated season. It’s time. Winnipeg can be a renowned food city. It’s on the cusp and the city’s talented crew of food makers and lovers will make it so.

This story first appeared online at CBC.ca. Here’s the link.  For loads of great stories about Manitoba’s vibrant arts and culture scene check out cbc.ca/manitoba/scene/.

For an insider’s look at Winnipeg’s food scene, check out my Tourism Winnipeg culinary tourism blog Peg City Grub here

Hey, why don’t you follow me on Twitter @RSummerfield

Manitoba farmers get into the beer biz

Prodigal Sons Brewery, Derek Trinke (left) and Toban Dyck. (Photo courtesy Toban Dyck.)

Prodigal Sons Brewery, Derek Trinke (left) and Toban Dyck. (Photo courtesy Toban Dyck.)

Toban Dyck and Derek Trinke are drafting a plan and planning to draught.

If the plan works, the two Manitoban men will be making their own craft beer within a year.

Called Prodigal Sons Brewery, both have returned to their family’s farms just north of Winkler to start their beer business.

“We’re very pumped about this. It’s very exciting,” said Dyck. “It’s been a dream of mine.”

The pair will build a brewery on Dyck’s family farm just north of Winkler. The 1,200 acre wheat and soy bean farm has been in the family for 130 years.

In mid-April, the duo also launched an online crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo.com to raise $20,000 to help build a smaller tap house on the property. They are also currently finalizing their business plan and will use it to find major investors, said Dyck.

Neither Trinke, nor Dyck has experience in the beer business.

Dyck is a magazine, newspaper and online journalist while Trinke, who lives across the lane on his own family farm, is an environmental consultant. Both men moved back to Manitoba several years ago from Toronto and Vancouver.

“The farm lifestyle was really appealing to both of us,” Dyck said.

They have already started brewing beer in a friend’s garage in Winkler. They plan to brew a lager, stout and a cream or pale ale to start.

Dyck pointed to Winnipeg’s Half Pints Brewery as inspiration and a model on how to build a successful craft beer business.

Indeed, last month Half Pints expanded its business by adding six 4,000 litre tanks to its St. James facility. The additional tanks will boost production by 56 per cent or roughly 1,500 24-bottle boxes per brew.

In the next few months, Half Pints also hopes to start selling in British Columbia. They currently sell beer in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

“It’s going to keep us busy that’s for sure,” said Half Pints general manager Zach Mesman.

He also welcomed Prodigal Sons Brewery to the local craft brewing industry.

As Mesman said: “There’s lots of room for everyone. It’s only good for the industry.”

Back in Winkler, Dyck knows starting a brewery from the ground up will be a big challenge.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us, that’s for sure.”

This story first appeared on CBC’s The Scene. Here’s the link.

My Cancer, part I

Originally posted on The Big Diseasey:

Meet the wife.

Meet the wife.

My cancer started with a sore leg, first noticed after walking many blocks of Toronto streets in December, 2010. I put it down to hard shoes and harder asphalt.

Three weeks later, my left calf was thick and spongy. I had a blood clot.

But why? I was in good shape, pretty active. I googled clots, and a few days later asked my family doctor if it might be caused by a tumour. Nope, he said.

A month later, a small round bump appeared on my inside left thigh. Cancer? No, said my doctor. A month later, the lump looked like half an egg. Cancer? No cancer, I was told.

Then the pain started. Excruciating lightning bursts up and down my leg. I was referred to a hematologist, who said “You should see an oncologist.” I felt relief, because if a doctor is going to dismiss my…

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About a Boy

Originally posted on The Big Diseasey:

Meet the boy.

Meet the boy.

Since I was a teenager, I knew I wanted children. I didn’t meet Robin until I was 43, so I knew I would be an old dad, if at all. We didn’t have to wait too long. Will was born in the summer of 2010.

Our happiness was cut short. Exactly one year later, I was back in the same hospital where he was born, enduring my first chemo treatment (we moved the date of his first birthday party.)  For months afterward, when I cried about having cancer, I was really crying about saying goodbye to Will. The thing that made me happiest was the same thing that made me saddest.

That “thing” is now three and a half. His curly hair is from me, his good looks come from his mother, and his blue eyes remain a mystery. (Right, Robin… Robin?)  He loves tools and trains…

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Living with Cancer: Q and A

Pre-op cuddle in Toronto. (photo robin summerfield)

Pre-op cuddle in Toronto. (photo robin summerfield)

The Globe and Mail is launching a new weekly series in March about living with cancer. Today, Mike and I stumbled upon it. I transcribed his answers. We haven’t really shared our cancer story online that much. There’s too much over-sharing on the Web and not enough filtering of feelings and thoughts. Less is more.

That said, here are Mike’s answers to the Globe’s Q and A. If it gets published, I’ll post the link.

Living with Cancer

Tell us about your cancer diagnosis: What type, when were you diagnosed, and your prognosis now. 

I was diagnosed with metastasized, stage 4 sarcoma in June 2011. The primary tumour was found in my left thigh. Additional tumours were also found in my lungs. Doctors say it is treatable, not curable. I had one year of chemotherapy. I have had two surgeries in Toronto, and six weeks of radiation and another surgery back home in Winnipeg. I am currently on chemotherapy again for an indeterminate amount of time. We are just trying to keep the cancer at bay so I can spend more time with my wife and 3 1/2 year-old son.

How did the cancer diagnosis change your life?
Cancer has shortened it: No more RRSPs! I cry more when I’m happy and I cry more when I’m sad. I had to really think if I’m afraid of death or not, and I’m not. It has made me think of my life in three month segments, nothing beyond that. It’s made me pursue dignity internally as I lose it externally. I suffer bodily indignities and yet these things mean less than simply holding on to my sense of self.

What has been the thing that has surprised you most about cancer?
Turns out ‘the gift of cancer’ is constipation. The variability of side effects is astounding. Meanwhile, an unbelievable cocoon of supportive friends, family and strangers has surrounded me.