Day Trips: Worm racing, for fun and forecasting

Banner Elk native Isabella Oakes shows off a furry friend during the Woolly Worm Festival.
Banner Elk native Isabella Oakes shows off a furry friend during the Woolly Worm Festival.

When it comes to long-range weather forecasting, there’s often little difference between what’s predicted by the Climate Prediction Center of the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and what’s spouted on TV between dealership ads.

What they and firms like Accuweather do is gather and interpret data that’s funneled through computer models. The farther ahead the prediction, the greater the chance it may be off.

Then there’s the cold-hearted Isabella tiger moth, whose prediction you can hold in your hands. It emerges in its larval state in fall and spends the winter frozen in that state – surviving on a self-made kind of antifreeze (cryptoprotectant) that prevents freeze damage. Come spring, it resumes its short life as a pupa and adult moth.

It’s a common insect in Eastern North America, and people have long believed that the width of the caterpillar’s 13 brushy, coat-like stripes can be used to predict winter weather. The 13 bands, the story goes, correspond to the 13 weeks of winter. Brown bands indicate mild weeks; black bands correspond to weeks that are cold and prone to snow.

Before you start laughing, know that “woolly worm” predictions are noted in the Farmer’s Almanac.

And before you take that too seriously, know that the annual Woolly Worm Festival in Banner Elk – which returns, next weekend – isn’t just folklore forecasting.

The big event Oct. 17-18 is the worm race held Saturday. From around 10 a.m. to about 4 p.m., there are a succession of heats, each with 20 caterpillars. You may race your own entrant: Bring one, or buy a racer for $1 from a Banner Elk student (the money raised goes to the local parent-teacher organization). Agility is as key as strength: The caterpillars race up lengths of string.

There were around 1,000 entries last year, according to fest organizers. The day’s champion is named the official winter forecaster... and gets its owner the $1,000 grand prize.

(There are Sunday races as well, but they’re for fun, bragging rights and $500 in prize money.)

This is the 38th year of the Woolly Worm Festival; organizers claim that interpretation of race victors’ stripes have an 85 percent record for weather accuracy.

Human meteorologists all agree that mid-October is prime for leaf-peeping in the High Country. Heading up to the Avery County area is just over a two-hour drive from metro Charlotte.

More than 20,000 people attend the festival each fall. Besides worm races, events include live music – Elvis and Dolly Parton tribute artists this year, plus bluegrass music. There’s also craft and food vendors and activities for children.

Admission to the festival, held on the grounds in front of Historic Banner Elk Elementary School, is $5; $3 for ages 6-12. That’s a pittance if you know how to pick six-legged thoroughbreds.

Race for the top

The Woolly Worm Festival is Oct. 17-18 in downtown Banner Elk, a tad over two hours from the Charlotte area. Take I-85 South to Lincolnton/Gastonia Exit 17; take U.S. 321 North to I-40, at Hickory. Follow I-40 West to Exit 103; U.S. 64 North Bypass loops around Morganton to N.C. 181, which leads north into Pisgah National Forest. A left at N.C. 184 takes you into Banner Elk.