Wiarton Willie predicts six more weeks of winter

Hopes for an early spring were dashed early today when Wiarton Willie saw his shadow, meaning -- as legend has it -- we're in for six more weeks of winter.

The new Wiarton groundhog saw his shadow this morning, dashing hopes for an early spring

South Peninsula Mayor Janice Jackson with Wiarton Willy. (Twitter)

If you were hoping for an early spring, Wiarton Willie says think again.

The rookie rodent prognosticator — successor to the original Wiarton Willy who died in September — saw his shadow this morning and, as legend has it, that means winter is far from over.

 "It's about a thousand degrees below zero up here. So six more weeks of it," sighed Janice Jackson, the mayor South Bruce Peninsula, which takes in the town of Wiarton.

"Actually, more people up here wanted a longer winter. That's because we've got fantastic snowmobile and ski trails here. So they just want to play for a little longer," Jackson told CBC's London Morning.

Willie emerged from his den at 8:07 a.m. to crowds chanting "Wake up Willie!"

Willie's first day on the job

Jackson said the new Willie has a little more spunk than his predecessor. "He's white with beautiful blue eyes and he's just a real cutey pie."

She said the annual event attracted a large crowd, including tourists from the Netherlands and Germany, as well people from across Ontario.

The Wiarton Willie festival continues Friday and Saturday at Wiarton's Bluewater Park.

"Willie has put Wiarton on the map for us. I just couldn't be more proud of our town and Willie," said Jackson.

How it all began

So how did the tradition of Groundhog Day begin? It turns out, among Canadians, it started with bears.

For a couple of years now, Western University history professor Allan MacEachern and some of his students have been going through a huge Environment Canada archival collection, and from 1840 onward they noticed a distinct lack of references to groundhogs on February 2.

Western University historian Alan MacEachern says his research shows that in Canada, bears were the first weather prognosticators. (Twitter)

"In fact, the only reference we've seen in the entire 100 year run of these observations is a single observation that mentions bears — that the bear didn't see his shadow."

That was from 1907 in Arden, a community in eastern Ontario.

MacEachern said this emanated from a long European medieval tradition in which the weather on February 2 would be a gauge for the rest of the winter. In some places it involved the observation of a fox, a marmot, a badger or a bear. When Europeans immigrated to Canada, they brought the bear lore with them.

"I don't think they caged it and put on it a podium and lifted it to their shoulders, or anything like that," said MacEachern.

And at that point, it wasn't called Groundhog Day. It was the day that simply made mention of "the shadow".

Groundhogs originated in the US

MacEachern said our current celebration of Groundhog Day appears to have been started in the 19th century United States by the Pennsylvania Dutch, and the tradition eventually caught on in Canada.

He thinks Canadians decided that groundhogs were a heck of a lot more convenient than bears.

"They were more common for one thing, because of course we tried to push out bears from populated areas. And they didn't rip your arm off and kill you."

MacEachern said what he has found in his research is that Wiarton, Ontario was the start of the groundhog story in Canada. Wiarton began holding a Groundhog Day festival in the 1950s and it was in the early 80s that Wiarton Willie "was invented."

He said Willie killed the bear and never looked back.