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Christmas/Holiday: Groundhog Day: Wiarton Willie is the Champ

Which famous Canadian resident is going to take over international media attention this week? Some 700 calls coming from such places as South Africa, Australia, and California? Print reporters and television crews poised? No, it's not Alanis Morisette announcing a concert tour. Nor is it Michael Ondaatje giving interviews about The English Patient, best film winner of the Golden Globe awards. The figure under scrutiny is actually a fat rodent who lives about three and a half hours northwest of Toronto-Wiarton Willie, the white groundhog with the pink eyes who acts as official weather forecaster each February 2. As on all International Groundhog Days, Willie will shuffle out of his burrow. If he sees his shadow and runs back inside, we're in for six more weeks of blasts from Jack Frost. But if he ambles about unconcerned, then we can break out the sunscreen and prepare for an early spring.

Our family stumbled upon this famous Canadian soothsayer some years ago quite by accident. We were headed for Tobermory on the tip of the Bruce Peninsula and drove through Wiarton, perched on a scenic crook of Georgian Bay. "Home of Wiarton Willie" read the population sign. Maybe this weather prophet was a permanent resident, I thought, not some wild groundhog trucked out for the cameras and then released. It turned out that, indeed, Willie and his two stand-ins (in case the unthinkable happened) lived at the X motel and regularly received visitors.

The kids were keen to see this Very Important Groundhog-especially as they had just chuckled through the movie, Groundhog Day , starring Bill Murray and that other groundhog, Pennsylvania's Punxsutawney Phil. So we turned the car around and headed back into town to feed carrots to Willie and his "cousins" and wonder how these fat white lay-abouts could cause such a stir each February 2.

Surprisingly, the importance of this date goes back centuries to Candlemas Day, when the clergy handed out blessed candles and people looked to auspicious signs in the natural world including the weather. When the German settlers arrived in Pennsylvania two hundred years ago, they found an abundance of groundhogs, or woodchucks, honored by the native peoples as a wise and sensible animal, the "grandfather" of all other creatures. In 1887, after a local groundhog hunt, a clever city editor of a Punxsutawney newspaper created a permanent home for the creatures, and thus was born Groundhog Day, publicized by news media ever since.

Because February 2 falls on a weekend this year, families will be able to join a whole slew of activities. Sure, everyone will be interested in whether Willie sees his shadow or not. Our Canadian weather forecaster apparently has an amazing 90 percent success rate. Some say it's because he was born midway between the Equator and the North Pole. Others think that because he's white, his shadow casting is more accurate. To mark his 40th anniversary last year, a large monument was carved by Toronto sculptor and high school art teacher Dave Robinson. You can see "Willie Emerging" in a park by Georgian Bay. But that's only a small part of the 1997 GroundHog Festival put on by the Wiarton and District Lions Club.

The "Wake-up Willie" party starts on Friday night with contests for the most audacious pyjamas. The following day includes a pancake breakfast, horse-drawn hay rides, the 11 a.m. parade, skating, cross-country skiing, Willie-limpics for the kids, a winter wonderland castle with a small luge run, sports tournaments, dancing, a casino and more. Sunday begins with a fireworks wake-up call for Willie at 7 a.m. A Scout troup color guard with a trumpeter and drummer will lead the crowds to the burrow where the official prediction will take place, monitored by officials dressed in white top hats and tails. The rest of the day is divided between a celebratory pancake breakfast, country music jamboree, hockey and curling play-offs, and more. Looking at the huge roster of events, it seems as if the town organizers have put together a welcome antidote to winter.

Meanwhile, in Punxsutawney, 80 miles north of Pittsburgh, the brown groundhog is a celebrity and a tourist attraction. Although Phil lives permanently behind a glass window in the town square, he leaves from time to time to visit the president in the Oval Office or guest on Oprah. Groundhog heads decorate the town garbage cans. Officials are expecting thousands to flood the town during the groundhog's two-day party.

If you can't attend Groundhog Day this year, you can monitor predictions by phone or on the computer. Both groundhogs have their own web sites and telephone numbers. For Willie, call 1-800-268-3838 or log in at http://www.wiarton-willie.org/ for the latest information. Phil can be reached at (814) 938-7700 or http://www.groundhog.org., a web site with lots of links to other weather-related sites. Last year, Willie goofed. He predicted an early end to winter. Perhaps it was because it was a leap year, historically a difficult year for weather reliability says Groundhog Day organizer Sarah Reaume. Or perhaps it was the stress of turning 40. But then, Phil was wrong too, predicting six more weeks of winter in a sun-drenched Pennsylvania. Law of averages says that both should on the mark this year. Let's keep our fingers crossed that Willie doesn't rush back inside his home.





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