Groundhog Day...even in the North!

by Jennifer Pritchett
Northern News Services

NNSL (Feb 03/97) - Fort Smith's groundhog community predicts that spring will come this year ... sometime.

In one of the only places in the NWT where they can live, the robust, ground-dwelling, bushy-tailed squirrels emerged from their burrows just long enough on Feb. 2 to give us the bad news.

This year the rodents saw their shadows, became frightened and scurried back down their holes, signalling at least three more months of winter. (Surprise, surprise).

Norm Stolle, warden at Buffalo National Park, said Groundhog Day -- even in the North -- gives people hope that spring will come.

"Well, maybe not soon, but hope at least that it will come," he said.

Canada's most famous groundhog is Wiarton Willie, named after his hometown in Ontario -- Wiarton, not Willie! -- a community on the Bruce Peninsula in southwestern Ontario between Lake Ontario and Georgian Bay.

Born precisely on the 45th parallel midway between the Equator and the North Pole, Willie is renowned for his accurate weather predictions.

Wiarton is also becoming renowned for its annual Groundhog Festival.

Described as an albino -- snowy white with pink eyes -- Willie looks more like an arctic creature, despite his southern origins.

The term "groundhog" is thought to be from an aboriginal name used by trappers in Northern Canada, although the buck-toothed creatures span the nation from Labrador to the Pacific and from Wiarton to Fort Smith and on to the Yukon.

As a park warden who spends a lot of time on the land, Stolle feels quite sure that Willie himself did not make the trip North -- he would have seen the snow-colored groundhog if there was one around Fort Smith.

"I've never seen a white one," said Stolle. "But I guess I haven't had cabin fever lately."

Stolle maintains that Groundhog Day this year tells a tale of a long winter, one that will likely come to an end sometime in April or May.

"Even though Groundhog Day seems more like a southern thing than a Northern thing, if it was to become big in the NWT, it would be in Fort Smith," he said.

Who knows? Maybe the South Slave town of 2,500 might become the next groundhog capital of the World.