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Groundhog Day: Shubenacadie Sam, Wiarton Willie disagree on weather forecast

Canada's three foremost weather-minded marmots are at loggerheads this Groundhog Day.

Canada's three foremost weather-minded marmots are at loggerheads this Groundhog Day. 

Nova Scotia's celebrity groundhog, Shubenacadie Sam, and Quebec's Fred la Marmotte both predicted a long, cold winter ahead, while Ontario's Wiarton Willie claimed an early spring is on the way. 

Sam, who because of her time zone has the honour of making Canada's first groundhog-based prediction each year, emerged briefly from her enclosure at a wildlife park north of Halifax on Wednesday morning and according to her handler, saw her shadow.

As the door to her pint-sized barn opened, Sam poked her nose outside, sniffed a nearby carrot and promptly returned inside to avoid the brisk -12 C weather.

Folklore has it that if a groundhog sees its shadow on Feb. 2, it will retreat into its burrow, heralding six more weeks of wintry weather. No shadow is said to foretell the early arrival of spring-like temperatures. 

At the Shubenacadie Wildlife Park, head interpreter Tabitha Cox said six weeks of winter wasn't necessarily bad news. 

"That means six more weeks of possible snow days, kids," Cox said. "More time to build snowmen. More time to go skiing. Long winter ahead for us."

For the second year in a row, the event at the park was closed to spectators and was broadcast live on Facebook to comply with the province's COVID-19 health protection orders.

The usual party in Wiarton, along Ontario's Bruce Peninsula, was also put on hold this year, but that couldn't stop the pomp.

The groundhog was rolled out onto a stage in a Plexiglas box and, according to South Bruce Peninsula Mayor Janice Jackson, proclaimed spring was nigh. 

"Willie says it's an early spring," Jackson said after holding her ear to the box.

While this year's audience may have been minimal, the community in the town of South Bruce Peninsula went all out to replicate Groundhog Days of yore. 

Jackson wore a costume meant to harken back to a bygone era, her hat bedecked in pink and purple feathers, while town criers in red livery shouted about Willie's allegedly sterling record.

"Prognostication is no easy task, but our Wiarton Willie has it right in hand with flawless predictions for 65 years – yes, Willie's forecasts all come true!" they yelled.

Last year, Willie was nowhere to be seen in a video marking Groundhog Day. Local officials called an early spring after throwing a fur hat into the air — a move they said recalled the tradition's first edition in Wiarton more than 60 years ago.

Months later, the town of South Bruce Peninsula, which includes Wiarton, publicly acknowledged that Willie had died from an infection caused by an abscessed tooth.

At the time, Jackson said the albino groundhog had died "quite a while before the last Groundhog Day,'' but she refused to specify when. 

They were unable to find a new white Willie, so this year's groundhog was a more traditional brown hue.

And Willie isn't the only famous groundhog with identity issues.

A spokesperson for Shubenacadie Wildlife Park — a 45-minute drive north of Halifax — confirmed Wednesday that Sam — or is that Samantha? — is a female groundhog that has held the position as chief prognosticator for a while. 

"This is not new, although this may be the first year that this was highlighted," the spokesperson said in a text before the online ceremony began about 30 minutes after sunrise. The park's website, however, still refers to Sam as a male. 

In Val d'Espoir on Quebec's Gaspé peninsula, Fred la Marmotte's handler pulled the rodent from his miniature log cabin as the sun was rising.

The event was livestreamed because of the pandemic, but two children were on the stage, and after the handler held Fred to his ear and consulted with the children, they declared that spring would be late in arriving.

Meanwhile in the United States, Punxsutawney Phil agreed with Sam, heralding a long winter.

Unlike the Canadian event, a crowd was on hand to witness the festivities at Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pa., but the American groundhog's prediction was also livestreamed. 

The Groundhog Day ritual may have something to do with Feb. 2 landing midway between winter solstice and spring equinox, but no one knows for sure. 

In medieval Europe, farmers believed that if hedgehogs emerged from their burrows to catch insects on Feb. 2, that was a sure sign of an early spring. 

However, when Europeans settled in eastern North America, the groundhog was substituted for the hedgehog.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2022.

Nicole Thompson and Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press