By Larry McGuire, The Punxsutawney Spirit
PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. — For the first time in three years, Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow Tuesday morning at a chilly, snow-splashed Gobbler’s Knob.
As legend has it, that means six more weeks of winter. This was the 106th time in 135 years that Phil emerged from his burrow and made such a prediction, though in each of the previous two years, he had failed to see a shadow and called for an early spring.
Just before 7:30 .a.m., the world’s most famous groundhog and his Inner Circle delivered the prediction virtually, by means of a live internet stream and website to a worldwide audience.
For the first time ever, there were no fans allowed in attendance Tuesday to hear Phil’s prognostication because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. A year ago, a crowd reported to be near 50,000 had flocked to Gobbler’s Knob for the ceremony.
Groundhog Club Inner Circle president Jeff Lundy, in his first year in the role, spoke to Phil in his native language, Groundhogese, and Phil directed him to the proper scroll.
It read: "It's a beautiful morning this I can see, with all my fans viewing virtually. My faithful followers, being safe and secure, our tradition of Groundhog Day must endure. We have all passed through the darkness of night, but now see hope in morning's bright light. But now, when I turn to see, there's a perfect shadow cast of me; six more weeks of winter there will be."
The virtual event began promptly at 6:30 a.m. with a welcome message from Lundy.
"This year is different. Gobbler's Knob is empty. But the tradition continues. There will always be a Groundhog Day," Lundy said.
Dan "Moonshine" McGinley and David "Thunder Conductor" Gigliotti, the Inner Circle members who typically provide the entertainment for Phil's followers at Gobbler's Knob beginning in the wee hours of Groundhog morning, also made a virtual appearance.
Celebrity guest messages were included from Camille Schrier, Miss America 2020; Stephen Toboloski, who played Ned Ryerson in the movie "Groundhog Day; Jim Cantore and Jen Carfagno of The Weather Channel; Danny Rubin, "Groundhog Day" screenwriter; YouTube star Pittsburgh Dad; country music stars Brett Eldredge, who sang the national anthem, and Blake Shelton; and John Esposito, a Punxsy native and chairman/CEO Warner Music Nashville.
The festivities made a turn toward the prognostication at 7:13 a.m., when the members of Phil's Inner Circle were introduced, including rookie members Rob "Downpour" McCoy and Pat "Head Huntsman" Casaday. The top-hat-wearing members then made their trek down the hill to Phil's stump. From there, all that remained was waking Phil from his slumber and hearing his annual prediction.
Groundhog Day 2021 was certainly very different from a tourism standpoint. Punxsutawney Phil's Official Souvenir Shop reported late last week that while online sales had been going well, sales in the physical shop itself had been slower than normal because of the pandemic.
But having no visitors at Gobbler's Knob didn't mean that the town was completely devoid of visitors throughout the week, as a few made the trip regardless, just to be in town on or around the big day.
Neal Geist, who lives in High Point, North Carolina, said that despite the fact that things were going to be different this year, he just couldn't resist the allure of Punxsutawney Phil and his big day. He said he's had a streak going since his first trip back in 2016, and he just couldn't bring himself to skip his visit this time around.
"I came as a one-time deal back in 2016, just to see what it was like, and I just had so much fun that I said to myself, 'I'm going to go every year,'" Geist said. "So, it's been an annual tradition, and even this year with the restrictions and everything, I thought, ‘I just want to be in Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day.’"
To officially keep his streak alive, Geist, who grew up in Pennsylvania — about 60 miles northeast of Harrisburg in Higgins — spent the night in town Monday before waking up in time to watch Phil's virtual prognostication, then making the return trip home.
Walter Wilson, a member of the Groundhog Club chapter in New Jersey, visited Gobbler's Knob on Monday. He said he frequently traveled to Punxsutawney with Jackie Jones, who was the leader of their chapter and had a great relationship with the Inner Circle. This year, the group made the trip in her memory after she passed away.
A.J. Dereume, one of Phil's handlers, said he met Jackie and that they each got matching tattoos on their ring fingers. "There's no better definition of a fan of Phil than Jackie," he said.
Groundhog Day 2021 was certainly an event like none other, which could be said each year given the unique nature of the prognostication and surrounding events. But everyone is in agreement about one thing: hoping that the 136th installment of Groundhog Day next year feels a lot more familiar and "normal."