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A thoroughbred woolly worm (AKA ‘woolly bear’) on a Japanese maple leaf.

Banner Elk, North Carolina, is the host city of North Carolina’s Woolly Worm Race, and the diminutive insect athletes have been put through their paces in Banner Elk now for 41 years. Depending on your route, Banner Elk is between 80 and 90 miles from Statesville.

Technically, the woolly worm — also called the “woolly bear” — is not a worm at all, but the larval stage of the Isabella tiger moth. Its scientific name is Pyrrharctia Isabella. It has 13 body segments; winter lasts 13 weeks. The caterpillar’s “fuzz” is usually a blend of burnt-orange and black colored segments. Some unknown backwoods meteorologist noted one really bad winter that the woolly worms he had seen in the fall were noticeably darker had more black segments than usual — and surmised that perhaps the caterpillars might be prognosticators of the coming winter’s severity.

Now the only question remaining would be: “Which woolly worm has the most accurate forecast?” Judging from their coloration, the worms did not appear to agree as to how many weeks of winter there would be. Some sources claim a prediction accuracy rate of more than 80%.

But how to pick the most accurate worm? Well, have the worms race up a string or a sloped surface. For the race up a 3-foot string, a time of 25 seconds is considered good. The fastest worm would necessarily also be the strongest, wisest, best-informed, etc., and therefore would have the best forecast. And so, the woolly-worm races were born.

North Carolina, it should be noted, is not the only state to hold woolly worm races. They are also held in Beattyville, Kentucky; Lewisburg, Pennsylvania; Camargo, Illinois; and Vermilion, Ohio, and often are held on weekends in conjunction with vintage car or agricultural machinery displays, parades, community flea markets, chili cook-offs and so forth.

In Avery County, the 42nd Annual Woolly Worm Festival is co-sponsored by the Kiwanis Club of Banner Elk and the Avery County Chamber of Commerce. The festival opens Saturday, Oct. 19, at 9 a.m. and resumes Sunday, Oct. 20, at 1 p.m. Saturday’s race begins at 10 a.m., with 25 entrants per heat. The final race is scheduled for 4 p.m. Saturday. Saturday’s winner will receive $1,000.

Sunday’s races are for prestige and the champion gets a smaller purse of $500. Besides the main attraction of the worm races, attendees will also have access to 175 craft vendors, rides, food and live music. Recent festivals have had some 20,000 people attend the two-day event.

Ticket prices are adults $6 per day; children 6 to 12, $4 per day; children under 6, free. The event is held at the campus of Banner Elk Elementary School, at 185 Azalea Circle in Banner Elk. Attendees are asked to not bring four-legged pets.

For more information, call (828) 898-5605 or visit chamber@averycounty.com. The number for the Banner Elk Chamber of Commerce is (828) 898-8395.

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