Groundhog Day

South Bruce Peninsula mayor Gwenn Gilbert puts her ear to Wiarton Willie in Wiarton, Ont., on Tuesday February 2, 2010. The groundhog saw his shadow and predicted six more weeks of winter, agreeing with his furry counterparts.



WIARTON, Ont. — Better keep the snow shovel, toque and hot chocolate handy — North America’s most famous furry forecasters emerged on Groundhog Day to break the news that they predict six more weeks of winter.

A mix of cheers and groans arose from the crowd gathered in Wiarton, Ont., as Canada’s best-known weather prognosticating groundhog, Wiarton Willie, delivered his forecast.

But Environment Canada meteorologist Geoff Coulson advised those with the winter blahs to take heart: if there was in fact only six more weeks of winter, that would amount to an early spring for most of Canada.

“We think of spring as the first stretch of weather where we’re consistently getting daytime highs in the double digits,” he said. “Well, that’s more like mid-April in most parts of the country.”

For that reason Coulson said he feels pretty certain that Willie and his ilk won’t be putting himself or other human forecasters out of work.

“Our furry forecasters saying there’s going to be six more weeks of winter in much of Canada, leading us to the middle of March, is a pretty safe bet,” Coulson said.

Unfortunately, Coulson said, the one part of the country where most people are hoping for more winter weather likely won’t get it. Environment Canada is forecasting temperatures of 8 or 9 C, along with rain, for the Olympics in Vancouver.

“If anywhere in the country is hoping for perhaps a bit more of a taste of winter it would be the folks out on the West Coast,” he said.

Six more weeks of winter was disappointing news to those in Wiarton who have had enough, but a great outlook for the many skiers and snowmobilers in the crowd of several hundred people gathered for the early morning prediction from Wiarton Willie.

“There is the sunrise, send the news to the printer,” proclaimed South Bruce Peninsula Mayor Gwen Gilbert, passing along Willie’s pronouncement after leaning over and cupping her ear to his enclosure.

“My shadow I see — six more weeks of winter.”

Folklore has it that if a groundhog sees his shadow on Groundhog Day he’ll flee to his burrow, heralding six more weeks of winter — if he doesn’t, it means an early spring.

The origins of the tradition aren’t clear, but it’s likely related to the fact that Groundhog Day falls midway between the start of winter and the beginning of spring.

Both Nova Scotia’s Shubenacadie Sam and Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania also saw their shadows.

The voice of furry dissent was heard north of Winnipeg at Oak Hammock Marsh wildlife area. Manitoba Merv failed to see his shadow, giving residents of that province cause for hope for an early spring.

Wiarton has been celebrating Groundhog Day with Willie since 1956 and thanks to some government funding and an events co-ordinator, the town played host to a “vamped up” festival, said Gilbert.

The prediction event was moved from a parking lot to a park by Georgian Bay with a bigger stage to feature dancers, musicians and of course Willie, now housed for his big moment in a plexiglass enclosure instead of a cage.

The additional money and the crowds that the larger, week-long festival is expected to draw sounded great to Mac McKenzie, 82, who founded the festival 54 years ago. But this year Willie’s prediction is just not sitting well with him.

“I don’t accept it this year,” he said. “I think it’s a goof somehow because I believe it will be an early spring… You check this back.”

Goof or no goof McKenzie has watched regular Willie watchers return year after year along with the new faces the festival continues to draw. He believes its popularity may be due to cabin fever.

“People get a little squirrely, no pun intended, at this time of year,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you do something weird about this time? New Year’s is gone, the early spring is not here, so it’s a natural thing.”

In the crowd of people wearing Willie masks, groundhog noses and even stranger get-ups was Tracy Gibbons — outfitted, for the record, in standard winter gear — who stayed loyal to Willie, despite a profound dislike for winter.

“I hate it, but it’s still a good prediction,” she said. “(Spring) is going to be here. We’ll prove him wrong.”

Brooke Richardson, 12, was not quite so generous.

“It sucks,” she said. “I wanted it to be spring.”

Balzac Billy, on the other hand, did NOT see his shadow this morning. So Albertans can look forward to an early spring!