Every October, more than 25,000 enthusiasts, and hundreds of vendors and entertainers gather in Banner Elk in Avery County, North Carolina, to see a worm race. According to local folklore, the multi-colored woolly worm (actually a fuzzy caterpillar) , can predict the weather through the coloring of its fur – the wider the black bands are, the colder and snowier the coming winter will be. Banner Elk is high in the Appalachian Mountains, a premier skiing area, so predictions of copious snow are welcome.
The festival got its start in 1977, when Jim Morton, then editor of Mountain Living magazine, decided to put the legend to the test. He organized the first Woolly Worm Festival, where 63 woolly worms competed in a multi-level race. Almost two decades later, the annual festival has become a local tradition. In 2005, 350 “racers” competed for the chance to be crowned the king or queen woolly worm, and become the official weather predictor. Worms race on vertical three-foot long strings (known as “heat”) in groups of 20. Winners then go on to race against each other, until only one worm remains. There is a $5 entry fee to race, but winners take home a prize based on the number of entrants (over the last few years, it has averaged $1000). The rest of the money goes to support local childrens charities. Once a winner is declared, the judges count the black rings and make an official prediction.
So, just how accurate are the predictions? The officials for the Woolly Worm festival rate accuracy on a scale of 1 to 5, five being next to perfect. Over the last few years, numbers have fluctuated between 3 and 5 consistently, making the predictions more than half right about 85 percent of the time. Quite accurate even when compared to expert weather forecasts!
So if you happen to be in Banner Elk, North Carolina in October, drop in on the Woolly Worm Festival!