Steve Stephens More Content Now
PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pennsylvania — When I went to see the world’s most famous weather forecaster, he was sleeping under a rock inside the town library — a good gig for a large rodent, especially on a day when the thermometer outside read minus 4 degrees.
For most of the year, Punxsutawney Phil, who is also the world’s most famous groundhog, makes his home in a climate-controlled man-made burrow at the Punxsutawney Library.
But on Feb. 2, Phil will be on the job in front of a crowd of thousands who make the trip to the town’s annual Groundhog Day festivities. Phil famously will consult his shadow and make the call for six more weeks of winter or an early spring, with help from his human assistants, members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club Inner Circle.
Visitors to Punxsutawney can immerse themselves in groundhog lore any time of year, though. When Phil is not predicting the weather or out on tour, he can usually be seen through the windows of “Phil’s Burrow,” the snug home he shares with his mate, Phyllis, at the library.
Travelers will also want to stop in at the Punxsutawney Chamber of Commerce visitors center, another groundhog-centric destination that includes Phil’s “official” souvenir shop and offers guides to the town and regional attractions.
Scattered around town are more than 30 6-foot high “Phantastic Phils,” fiberglass groundhogs that are individually decorated by Punxsutawney businesses and other sponsors.
Also on the must-see list is the Weather Discovery Center, located in the old town post office. The center’s fun, interactive displays and bold graphics will especially appeal to younger visitors. It’s also home to the Meteorologist Hall of Fame, honoring accomplished (human) forecasters from around the country. I enjoyed my own brief encounter with weatherman stardom, watching myself doing a mock forecast in front of the center’s “green screen” as a computer inserted a weather map behind me in the shot, just like on the Weather Channel.
Guests are also welcome at the downtown Punxsutawney Groundhog Club Headquarters, which offers displays of historical Groundhog Day mementos, including items from the classic Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day,” in which Punxsutawney, alas, was portrayed by a town in Illinois.
At the headquarters I met John Griffiths, a member of the Groundhog Club Inner Circle and one of Phil’s two official handlers. They not only hold the ‘hog before and during his annual forecast, but also attend to his well-being all year long.
Although groundhogs have a short lifespan, Phil, officially, is the same Phil who has presided at the Punxsutawney ceremonies since 1887, Griffiths said. And he hasn’t mellowed that much over the years.
Phil, although an accomplished meteorologist, is also a wild member of the genus Marmota. He can be a bit, well, feisty, when he’s being held, Griffiths said.
“You do learn how to protect yourself,” he said.
Phil makes his annual prediction at Gobbler’s Knob, a hilltop park just outside town. Buses shuttle visitors to the park beginning at 3 a.m. on Groundhog Day and shuttle them back after the early-morning ceremony. Hardy souls can also hike to the park from town.
The events on Gobbler’s Knob include fireworks, but focus mainly on Phil’s prediction.
“It sounds funny, but we try to keep it as pure as possible,” Griffiths said.
But a wide variety of activities, entertainment and commercial frivolity await in town, before and after Phil’s big moment.
A full slate of events begins Feb. 1 and continues through Feb. 3, with a variety of town tours, chainsaw-carving demonstrations, displays about Phil and his kin, live shows and music, story time and crafts for kids and appearances by Phil. Many of the events are in Barclay Square, the large public park next to Phil’s Burrow downtown.
Visitors can also watch the Meteorology Hall of Fame induction ceremony, see free showings of “Groundhog Day” at the town Community Center, attend a Groundhog Eve Dance and drop in at many local businesses holding special events for the occasion.
Phil, himself, will preside at the weekend’s concluding event, the formal Groundhog Ball on Feb. 3, where townsfolk, guests and one large, pampered rodent will celebrate the latest forecast, whatever it may be.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @SteveStephens.