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.

PicMonkey Collage

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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.

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. 

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.

Fall in Love with Winter: Hecla ice fishing, part II

Blizzard landscape. (photo robin summerfield)
Blizzard landscape. (photo robin summerfield)

Ice fishing in Hecla is a tough gig.

One moment you’re angling to get angling and the next minute a blizzard blows in, the fuel line on the auger freezes and the ice-fishing tent blows across the ice.

That’s life. Sometimes the weather just won’t cooperate. Despite our attempts at ice-fishing in Manitoba in February, it just wasn’t meant to be.

We had fun regardless.

Here’s a photo gallery of our fun on Lake Winnipeg.

Are we having fun yet? (photo robin summerfield)
Are we having fun yet? (photo robin summerfield)
Snow heart. (photo robin summerfield)
Snow heart. (photo robin summerfield)
Fearless fishing guide Jason Hamilton. (photo robin summerfield)
Fearless fishing guide Jason Hamilton. (photo robin summerfield)
The fish are over there. (photo robin summerfield)
The fish are over there. (photo robin summerfield)
Sonar fish finder. (photo robin summerfield)
Sonar fish finder. (photo robin summerfield)
Fishing guide Jason Hamilton with his trusty ice auger. (photo robin summerfield)
Fishing guide Jason Hamilton with his trusty ice auger. (photo robin summerfield)
Getting cozy in the ice shack. (photo robin summerfield)
Getting cozy in the ice shack. (photo robin summerfield)
Family time in the shack. (photo robin summerfield)
Family time in the shack. (photo robin summerfield)
Auger model. (photo robin summerfield)
Auger model. (photo robin summerfield)
Snowscape on Lake Winnipeg. (photo robin summerfield)
Snowscape on Lake Winnipeg. (photo robin summerfield)

This trip was organized and sponsored by Travel Manitoba.

Fall in Love with Winter: Hecla Ice Fishing

Ivan, master of the lake. (photo robin summerfield)
Ivan, master of the lake. (photo robin summerfield)

It has taken me 40-plus years to love winter on the prairies.

After kvetching about the cold for decades, I decided to try something different: I decided to embrace the cold.

All it took was a really warm winter coat, long underwear, serious snow pants and no mirrors anywhere in my home. (Looking cute is a near impossibility in winter.)

All that unflattering gear came in handy during a Late-February FAM trip to Hecla Grindstone Provincial Park and Lakeview Hecla Resort.

After a morning of snowshoeing, we headed to Ivan’s home on the shores of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba’s Interlake. This second-generation commercial fisherman, nicknamed Santa, is a hardy sort who loves showing city folk and other ice fishing neophytes to his neck of the woods.

In this case, this neck of the woods is the vast frozen wonderland of Lake Winnipeg in the heart of winter.

So a bunch of us writers, photographers and bloggers hopped into his circa 1951 Bombadeer and trucked out over the ice to Ivan’s fishing lines.

Nine of us piled into the transporter, hip to hip on the benches. Ivan hopped into the cab and coaxed the dinosaur into first gear. None of the dials worked and there was a strong smell of exhaust in the cabin. Whatever. We were on an adventure. A little carbon monoxide was worth the price. The wooden behemoth rattled and shook while we rolled across the snow-scape.

We stopped a few hundred metres from the shore line, we hopped out and Ivan demystified the life of a commercial ice fisher.

What we learned:

• The ice on Lake Winnipeg is about four-feet thick.

• Ivan, who looks to be about 70 or so, has been fishing as long as he can remember.

• Ivan has piercing blue eyes.

• His father taught him to fish and he taught his son to fish.

• They fish mostly pickerel.

• In the winter, they deploy 2,400 feet of fishing nets (eight, 300-foot nets).

• They deploy the nets using an under-ice jigger that floats up under the ice. The jigger was designed by a Manitoba man named Olafson. The slotted wood board quickly became the standard in the industry. Olafson tried to patent his invention after two years but he had waited to long. It had been in the public domain for too long and his window of opportunity vanished.

• In winter, they check the nets about once a week. A good day yields about three tubs of fish.

• In summer, they check the nets daily. On one record day, the father and son pulled 19 tubs worth of pickerel from the water.

• Ivan’s Bombadeer is named Old Helge, after the man he bought it from.

• Ivan loves, loves, LOVES to fish. He fishes in his spare time too.

One mean looking ice auger. (photo robin summerfield)
One mean looking ice auger. (photo robin summerfield)
Ice fishing nets. (photo robin summerfield)
Ice fishing nets. (photo robin summerfield)
Old Helge, Bombadeer circa 1951. (photo robin summerfield)
Old Helge, Bombadeer circa 1951. (photo robin summerfield)
Ivan's sweet spot. (photo robin summerfield)
Ivan’s sweet spot. (photo robin summerfield)
Ice fishing jigger. (photo robin summerfield)
Ice fishing jigger. (photo robin summerfield)
The prize: pickerel. (photo robin summerfield)
The prize: pickerel. (photo robin summerfield)

This trip was organized and sponsored by Travel Manitoba.

Fall in Love with Winter: A Hecla Escape

Bundle up buttercup. (photo robin summerfield)
Bundle up buttercup. (photo robin summerfield)

So we Manitobans are in—what can best be described as—winter hell.

But in hell, it’s hot.

We are in the Arctic equivalent of hell.

So just how cold is it?

Well, one day in January we were colder than Mars. Since early December winter has us in a chokehold. Minus 40˚C is not unusual. Minus 30˚C is typical. And minus 20˚C is considered balmy.

Yep, it’s that bad.

It’s taken me 40+ years as a Manitoban to realize the only way to survive winter on the prairies, is to face it head on.

That means getting outside and getting away. While most head south to warmer climes, I recently headed north.

Hecla Grindstone  Provincial Park is an outdoor oasis two and a half hours north of Winnipeg. Located on 360 acres, this Interlake gem has a ton to offer. In the summer, there’s camping, fishing, swimming, hiking and golfing. A charming village with all the basics awakens each spring.

In the winter, cross country skiing, snow shoeing and soaking in the hot tub beckon. And Lakeview Hecla Resort is where to love winter again. 

On a recent FAM trip, a small group of writers, bloggers and photographers from across Manitoba rediscovered the joys of winter.

Lakeview is a fully appointed, family and pet friendly hotel with a restaurant, a water park with pool and water slides, spa and hot tubs. Rooms are modern and comfortable with a lounge, inviting soaker tub and monster-sized beds. Two flat screen televisions and free wifi are are part of the deal.

This year-round resort is a hub for ice fisherman and snow mobilers in the winter and golfers, boaters and families in the summer. The resort has an interesting past and spent several years shuttered until Lakeview took it over, renovated it and reopened in Spring 2012.

We started our first day with an hour of snowshoeing near the lodge. For the first 100 feet we were battered by blustery winds. The moment we stepped into the trees we also stepped into a winter  wonderland.

Quiet enveloped us. The only sounds came from the crunching snow beneath our feet and the odd woodpecker chipping away on an unseen tree. Heather Hinam, an uber smart naturalist and guide lead the way. (Heather has her own custom adventure business called Second Nature and is also an artist who designs interpretative signs for parks that detail the wildlife and natural habitat.)

We learned about snow, trees and the local denizens, aka deer, wolves and coyotes. We hiked gentle slopes and tucked in between stands of trees. The trail was broken and we criss-crossed in and out of the trees. We sampled only a small taste of the trails winding their way to and from Lakeview. We traversed groomed cross-country ski trails and soaked up the sunshine.

And in no time at all, the cold was a distant memory.

Snowshoeing in the trees at Lakeview Hecla Resort. (photo robin summerfield)
Snowshoeing in the trees at Lakeview Hecla Resort. (photo robin summerfield)
Lakeview Hecla Resort: Home away from home. (photo robin summerfield)
Lakeview Hecla Resort: Home away from home. (photo robin summerfield)
Snow bunny. (photo by robin summerfield)
Snow bunny. (photo by robin summerfield)
Getting a lift. (photo robin summerfield)
Getting a lift. (photo robin summerfield)
Heather Hinam with Second Nature teaching us about trees. (photo robin summerfield)
Heather Hinam with Second Nature teaching us about trees. (photo robin summerfield)

This trip was organized and sponsored by Travel Manitoba.

Grazing in the Outfield: Dinner on the Diamond

Dining al fresco during Grazing in the Field. (photo courtesy Grazing in the Field)
Dining al fresco during Grazing in the Field. (Cory Aronec Photography)

Here’s an idea: Host a fantastic multi-course dinner on a professional baseball team’s diamond. Invite 100-plus food lovers. Get one of Winnipeg’s best chefs and his team to come up with a home-run menu. And bring ingredients, like fresh milk, cream, butter and ice cream, straight from a Manitoba farm.

That’s the inspired plan behind Grazing in the Outfield, the latest venture from the Dairy Farmers of Manitoba.

Organizers hoped to pull it off for this summer’s 2014 baseball season, but a very tight baseball schedule has made it impossible. So in 2015, Grazing in the Outfield plans to throw its inaugural event. No date has been settled and they’re still finalizing the details.

So, for the meantime, foodies will get their fix at Grazing in the Field. This year’s event will be held September 13, 2014 at Hans and Nelleke Gorter’s dairy farm in Otterburne, MB. Tickets cost $150 each (plus tax) and went on sale in early February. Only 100 will be sold and Brandes reports about 25 have already gone. Chef Ben Kramer and his team at Diversity Foods (University of Winnipeg) will be in the kitchen. Kramer always pulls together a fantastic and fun spread.

Tip to the wise: Don’t wait to buy tickets. In 2011, the first year, all 115 tickets sold. The second year was also a sell out with 135 tickets sold.

Check out the Grazing in the Field Facebook page here.

For tickets click here.

In the meantime, here’s the post I wrote for Peg City Grub about Grazing in the Field 2011.

Making table side 'smores at Grazing in the Field. (photo courtesy Grazing in the Field)
Making table side ‘smores at Grazing in the Field. (Cory Aronec Photography)