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DUELING GROUNDHOGS: Rodents mixed on spring forecast; Whitley Countians have experienced mild winter to date, spring-like temperatures this week

February 2, 2012

Staff & wire reports

COLUMBIA CITY – The general consensus in Whitley County, Indiana is if six more weeks of winter is like this ... then bring it on!

A very mild winter has been experienced locally to date, and this week's temperatures of 15 to 20 degrees above normal adds to early spring fever.

Most of the groundhog oracles today were pointing to an early springtime, but at least one was predicting 6 more weeks of "winter."

Pennsylvania's Punxsutawney Phil told people to prepare for six more weeks of winter on Thursday, making him the minority opinion among his groundhog brethren who seem to think that spring is coming early.

But with such a mild and relatively snowless winter so far, who can tell the difference?

Phil's "prediction" came as he emerged from his lair to "see" his shadow on Gobbler's Knob, a tiny hill in the town for which he's named about 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

Yet groundhogs in at least four other states — West Virginia's French Creek Freddie, Georgia's Gen. Beauregard Lee, Ohio's Buckeye Chuck and New York's Staten Island Chuck (full name: Charles G. Hogg) — did not see their shadows.

The Groundhog Day celebration is rooted in a German superstition that says if a hibernating animal casts a shadow on Feb. 2, the Christian holiday of Candlemas, winter will last another six weeks. If no shadow is seen, legend says, spring will come early.

Temperatures were near freezing when Phil emerged at dawn — unseasonably warm for Punxsutawney — and were forecast to climb into the mid-40s in a winter that's brought little snow and only a few notably cold days to much of the East.

Organizers expected 15,000 to 18,000 people to witness the prognostication ceremony that was held just before 7:30 a.m.

And the ceremony is largely that: Phil's prediction is determined ahead of time by the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club's Inner Circle, a group who dons top hats and tuxedos and decides in advance what the furry creature will predict.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett was among the spectators this year. Those who couldn't make it to Gobbler's Knob could follow the groundhog on Twitter and Facebook, or watch a webcast of the event on his website.

"What started as a small gathering in 1887 has now evolved into tens of thousands of visitors from around the nation and even the world coming to Punxsutawney to participate in this time-honored Groundhog Day tradition," Corbett said.

Phil has now seen his shadow 100 times and hasn't seen it just 16 times since 1886, according to the Inner Circle. There are no records for the remaining years.

The tradition attained a large following with the 1993 Bill Murray comedy "Groundhog Day," in which a weatherman covering the event must relive the day over and over again. Before the movie came out, Phil was lucky to have an audience of 2,500, said Mike Johnston, vice president of the Inner Circle.

And while the group has records of Phil's predictions dating back to 1886, what it doesn't have is a tally of whether Phil was right.

Johnston said the reason is simple: "He's never been wrong." Phil is "incapable of error," he said, because the groundhog smartly avoids being site-specific in his prognostications.

If Phil predicts six more weeks of winter, said Johnston, "I guarantee you someone's going to have six more weeks of winter."

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