Recently I stumbled into an informative event when I drove to Mt. Cheaha to sample chili at the annual cook-off. I had arrived early, so I decided to walk down the boardwalk. Lo and behold, Smokey Bear was standing near the boardwalk entrance, all seven feet of him. Smokey gave me a hug.

Then my friend Renee Raney, the new park operations supervisor, welcomed those who had gathered there. She spoke at a gathering to announce improvements made at the Doug Ghee Accessible Trail (boardwalk) and to welcome new staff members and tell about more upcoming improvements.

Renee told us how the improvements are possible because of the “yes” vote Alabamians gave last year’s Amendment 2. Its passage meant that the money from gate fees, stores sales, camping fees, and hotel stays could remain in the park for improvements and maintenance.

After the vote, and before the legendary Big Foot could say “boo,” things changed.

Under the direction of the new superintendent, Justin Howard, a man who grew up in Ashland, began right away making repairs to things like hot-water heaters, air conditioners, and the like. He oversaw the restoration of the pool with a view of the valley below and the miles of picturesque mountains beyond the valley. With the influx of the additional money, a crew remodeled the kitchen at the restaurant. Howard began dreaming of more, such as repaving the campgrounds for RVs.

Back to the ceremony: Renee introduced the staff at Mt. Cheaha and visiting staff members from the office at the Talladega National Forest, several who also briefly spoke. They included Ranger Gloria Nielson, Scott Layfield, and park naturalist Mandy Pearson. Another guest was David Lockridge of Blueridge Manufacturing, the sign maker who helped recreate new informational display signs along the boardwalk.

Renee, who has a 20-year background in teaching environmental education, mentioned several of the following upcoming events that Calhoun Countians (and those beyond) can enjoy:

Bigfoot Biobash Conservation Festival, 8 a.m.- 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18 - Includes a 5K Run (registration, 7 a.m.), a Fun Run, and the 10th Annual International Tellebration Storytelling. $5 per person gate fee. Register at Active.com.

Secrets for Santa, 2-4 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 10. $10 pp. Ticket Required. Children will have quality time (and photo op) with St. Nicholas. Refreshments.

Christmas at Cheaha Week - Monday – Friday, Dec. 18-22.

Take Joy: Old Fashioned CCC Christmas, 5 p.m.-7 p.m., Monday, Dec. 18, Bald Rock Lodge. Remembering what the holiday was like for the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s from CCC expert Mandy Pearson. Meet daughter of African American Cheaha CCC leader, Georgia Underwood Calhoun. Nostalgic 19tth Century Christmas film, period refreshments. $10 per person. Ticket required.

Christmas Fairy Tales & Winter Observations for Families (ages 5-12) noon-2 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 20. Author Renee Raney at the CCC Red Bud Pavilion for a cozy winter hearth fire, storytelling, and fairy houses. $5 per person gate fee.

Christmas for the Birds: Feeding Winter Backyard Wildlife, 2 p.m.-4 p.m. Thursday, Dec., 21, Cheaha-Cleburne Room. Learn about state’s birds with ornithologist Renee Raney, create a bird feeding wreath. Refreshments and holiday joy. $5 per person gate fee.

Mount Crumpit Christmas Breakfast, 9-10 a.m., Friday, Dec. 22, Storyteller Renee Raney to read the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Child-friendly breakfast buffet with green eggs & ham, Cindy Lou Who pancakes, refreshing “Mom-mosas” for parents. Photo opportunities. $25 per person, includes buffet and surprise.

Future events

Fire on the Mountain: New Year’s Eve Revelry, 4:30 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 31, Last Sunset observance at 4 p.m. Event: 7 p.m.-2 a.m., Sunday.-Monday., Dec. 31-Jan. 1, Ages 21 and up. Hors d’oeuvres, prime rib buffet, live music, a midnight celebration, and “after midnight” champagne. Park restaurant. $85 per person. Ticket required.

Winterlude: Romance on the Mountain, 7-11 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 10, Black-tie event, three-course dinner. Dance instruction. Ages 21 and up. Bald Rock Lodge. $150 per couple. Ticket required.

For information or tickets, email Renee.Raney@dcnr.alabama.gov. Click the “like” button on the Cheaha State Park-Alabama Facebook page. Visit http://www.alapark.com/cheaha-state-park.

Recently I shared a meal with Renee to express my excitement over the improvements at Mt. Cheaha, the place that so many of us claim as our “special mountain.” She was excited because an Enchanted Christmas with Santa sold out in August, and a recent day-long fall festival had almost 2,000 attendees and raised twice as much revenue for the park than the same date last year. It is money that will go into more improvements and programming.

Mt. Cheaha inspires visitors because of its natural beauty alone. However, one reviewer on the Internet said that Mt. Cheaha was pretty but that its features were “run down.” Thankfully, that description is no longer appropriate. Its future seems as bright as a Mt. Cheaha sunset, thanks to concerned Alabama voters.

Email Sherry at sherrykug@hotmail.com.

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