Groundhog Tales

On my way from Collingwood to Tobermory for the Bruce Peninsula Orchid Festival, I find myself turning my car onto back roads in the agricultural hill country, drawn by the unexplored terrain and delightful scenery. Small creatures scatter quickly into the tall grass as I pass, groundhogs mostly. The sight of them brings to mind Laird’s gruesome story of his childhood dog, a boxer, who caught a groundhog and literally shook it out of its pelt. Laird claims that the skinned groundhog kept running until the dog pounced on it again and finally killed it. Lynda, quite unprompted, related the same story to me some time later, so it must be true.

Groundhogs in mind, I grin in goofy delight when it dawns on me that I will be passing through the infamous town of Wiarton, gateway to the Bruce Peninsula. More importantly, it is the “Home of Wiarton Willy”, an albino groundhog whose shadow supposedly predicts the coming of spring each year. Or was. My favourite story of all time is of the scandalous demise of the original Wiarton Willy, in 1999.

One late winter day, on a Saturday afternoon, the 22 year old groundhog was found dead in his burrow. He was due to make his annual appearance on Tuesday. Now, you must understand that people all over Ontario await news of Wiarton Willy’s shadow, or at least the media must think so, because the outcome is reported on the radio, on the 6 o’clock news, and in all the newspapers. Large crowds of people converge on Wiarton on this day each year, their children in tow, to be present when the four-footed oracle of the spring equinox pops out of his burrow and makes his pronouncement known.

The organizers, with only two days left before the event and no time to find a replacement, decided to keep it a secret.

The day arrived. Faced with the inevitable, the organizers unveiled a very dead and very stiff white rodent laid out in a tiny coffin, dressed up in a tiny tuxedo, with two shiny pennies over its eyes and a carrot between its paws. Solemn words of memorial were issued over the well-dressed carcass – glasses raised, hats doffed, and heads bowed.

Not everyone got the humour of the situation. Mothers were shocked and children were traumatized. Some dismissed it as a tasteless publicity stunt. Then scandal broke:

Last week the Associated Press published what may be the most bizarre caption correction to have ever moved on the wires. AP corrected the spelling of the late Wiarton Willie the Groundhog’s name, but more significantly, they also had to explain that their photographer had been lied to when he took a photo that purported to show the recently departed creature in his coffin. Apparently the real late Willie had been dead so long, and was so badly decomposed when his handlers tried to roust him for Groundhog Day, that they used an older stuffed groundhog as a stand-in for their photo of Willie’s wake.

(Courtesy “Behind the Viewfinder – A Year in the Life of Photojournalism”)

“We didn’t try to hide the fact that he was stuffed,” said Tom Ashman of Wiarton Willie’s publicity team. “If the media had been doing their job they would have seen the stitches on the belly.”

But, why fake it?

“People needed closure,” Ashman explained.

As for me, I howled.

It still makes me laugh.