TORONTO - A group of famous, furry forecasters called for an early spring Wednesday, in what is certainly the most wildly incongruous Groundhog Day prediction in recent memory.

In Wiarton, Ont., Canada's most well-known prognosticating rodent, Wiarton Willie, failed to see his shadow, therefore predicting an early spring, as a dangerous winter storm howled outside.

The annual event was held inside a tent for the first time in its 55-year history as wind whipped a dumping of snow outside to create near white-out conditions.

Still, hundreds of people flocked to the event to see the albino groundhog, including Brian Jewett, who is from Toronto but works in the area. He said the weather was "ridiculous," but he didn't want to miss the festival.

"I'm glad that after the long drive and all the nail biting that when I got here it was still going on. That would have been a heartbreak," he said.

"It's not too much fun when you're driving along a road and they announce on the radio that it's closed."

He was glad to hear Willie's call for an early spring and he's hoping the groundhog is right, but he doesn't put too much stock into it.

"About as much stock as I put into my football predictions -- not very much," Jewett said.

Nova Scotia's Shubenacadie Sam and Pennsylvania's Punxsutawney Phil also both predicted an early spring.

Sam emerged into a special enclosure to the sound of bagpipes and the shouts of school children who had come to watch the event.

"Sam, like usual, came out and greeted the crowd although he did seem a little sleepy," said Theresa Adams, a nature interpreter at the Shubenacadie Wildlife Park.

Mac McKenzie, 83, founded the Wiarton festival 55 years ago, and said it was something fun to do in the dead of winter, when all the summer tourists had been long gone.

"We depended on people coming to this area in that era, all the stores, all the buildings along Sauble Beach were closed in the wintertime as people flood back to the cities," McKenzie said.

In addition to boosting tourism, McKenzie said the festival has boosted Wiarton's nationwide reputation, as people from coast to coast have heard of Wiarton because of Willie.

Environment Canada issued a spate of weather warnings and watches across the country.

In Ontario, meteorologists say a winter storm is expected to dump about 15 centimetres of snow on much of the southern part of the province.

The weather office has also issued a heavy snowfall warning for Nova Scotia.

Folklore has it that if a groundhog sees his shadow on Groundhog Day he'll flee to his burrow, heralding six more weeks of winter, and if he doesn't, it means spring's around the corner.

The origins of the tradition aren't clear, but it's likely related to the fact that Groundhog Day falls midway between the start of winter and the beginning of spring.

Last year, several of the furry forecasters predicted six more weeks of winter.