Amid a sad situation, fortuitous timing led Eero Kuitunen to a job he now enjoys: driving the train that rolls through the woods of Bear Creek Park.
It was nearly a decade ago when Kuitunen first met Linda Penn, who at the time operated the popular Surrey railroad.
“I was hired when her husband, Dave, was in the hospital and had a month to live,” Kuitunen recalled. “My son was involved in building the mini-golf course here, and was speaking to Linda about it. They were doing the final estimates, and she asked my son if he knew anyone qualified to drive the train, because Dave was sick and couldn’t drive it anymore. So my son says, ‘Yeah, my dad – he’s sitting in the truck right now.’ That’s how I got involved.”
A retired train inspector and operations manager, Kuitunen has been on the job at Bear Creek Park for close to eight years as one of three train conductors, along with Larry Fornier and Lorne Patterson.
For his shift, Kuitunen commutes from Chilliwack to Surrey. “We railway guys are used to driving and staying up late, so I don’t mind,” he reasoned with a laugh.
For Halloween, the park’s daytime Pumpkin Train got rolling Oct. 10, and the nighttime Scream Train starts Saturday, Oct. 16.
It’s a 12-minute ride on the half-mile loop, past ghosts, pirates, skeletons, giant spiders and assorted scary creatures.
Jassy Kaur has operated the train for the past three years, after taking over from Linda Penn in 2017.
— Tom Zillich (@TomZillich) October 15, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic nearly derailed train operations, after the attraction closed in mid-March.
“We were debating whether we were going to open or not after that, but we got a lot of inquiries, a lot of emails, asking if we were going to be open, because people wanted to come,” Kaur recalled. “At first we were going to shut down and leave it at that, but we decided to open, and it’s a big change.”
After an idle spring and early summer, the train rolled again starting Aug. 1. “We were quite busy, even with all the COVID social distancing,” Kuitunen noted.
Halloween is always a busy time for the train, which will involve some pandemic protocols this year.
Kaur said she worked with city and health authorities to make it all work and safe for everyone, with requirements for distancing, masks and maximum capacity of 50 patrons for timed departures. Online booking of tickets is encouraged, hand-sanitization stations are in place, and plexiglas barriers have been installed in the train cars.
“There is a lot of extra work that goes into this because of COVID,” Kaur explained. “Every single train ride, every time it comes around and into the station, it gets cleaned, so we have extra staff hired this year.
“Things are different,” she added. “Last year we had a pumpkin patch in the middle of the forest, where the train stopped, everybody got out and picked up a pumpkin and then got back into the train, but we can’t have that this year. People would touch all the pumpkins and not go back to the exact seat they were in. It just wouldn’t work.”
This month, the actors for the Scream Train will also keep their distance, meaning Chainsaw Charlie won’t get quite as close to passengers.
The train ride includes views of the “Gordon Manor” structure that previously stood as a Halloween attraction at Gord Sauck’s house, in the Sunshine Hills area of North Delta. “We had to rebuild it after a huge tree fell on it last year, crushing half of it,” Kuitunen revealed.
Elsewhere in Newton, Kaur runs Creative Explorers Daycare.
“The train fits in with what we do at the daycare, and the train has that daycare touch, for the kids,” she said. “We know what makes them happy. My background is an ECE, early childhood educator, so it works.”
She’s thankful for Linda Penn’s ongoing help with train operations.
“It’s definitely hard to fill Linda’s boots with this, because she ran this train for many, many years, from day one, and she and I are still in communication,” Kaur said. “She still helps me if I’m stuck with something or have a question. She’s still there as a friend, and that really helps me out. There have been challenges for sure, but she’s been there. Like, the first time we did Halloween, it was a struggle to know how far in advance to plan, for the actors, to get everything organized, the ticketing and how it’s all run. It was all new to me, and she was a great help.”
When it’s his turn to drive the train, Kuitunen puts on a fluorescent vest and, this year, a ventilated black mask.
“It’s a lot of fun, and we maintain the train as well, all the decorating, and the upkeep of the golf course,” Kuitunen explained. “Jassy tells us what the vision is for decorating, and we have two containers of decorations and try to make it look different every year.”
For him, the most fun is driving a train full of kids aged four to seven years, because of how much fun they have.
“I have a few words with the kids, tell them how it all works, based on their age,” Kuitunen said. “If they’re a little older, you talk a little more technical.
“Halloween, it gets busier, and then it continues on,” he added. “We strip away all the Halloween decorations and we start with the Christmas decorations. That starts in early December, so it comes pretty quick.”
Pumpkin Train runs from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., at 13750 88th Ave. The $10 ticket includes a ride, pumpkin and treat. From 6:30 to 10 p.m., the Scream Train ride goes for $13 a ticket. For details, visit bctrains.com or call 604-501-1232.
OTHER HALLOWEEN EVENTS IN SURREY
Elsewhere in Surrey this month, other Halloween-related events are planned at various facilities, with details posted to the city’s website (surrey.ca).
Gatherings include a “Spooktacular” at Historic Stewart Farm on Oct. 23 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. “Spend the day with other young witches at a Heritage Halloween Party. Make scary decorations, get your fortune told and create a potion to enjoy along with treats. For children age 6-12. Pre-registration is required. Costumes optional.”
A free “Halloween Outdoor Treasure Hunt” is planned Oct. 24 at Hawthorne Rotary Park from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. “Follow the clues that you find using GPS coordinates and solve the Halloween riddle. Each family will receive a GPS device as well as instructions on how to participate. Halloween costumes are encouraged. Pre-registration is required.”
On Oct. 30 from 9:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m., a free “Halloween Storytime at Redwood Park” will take place in the treehouse there. “Halloween is a great time to spend outdoors with your family and what better way to do that than at Redwood Park. Start your visit to Redwood Park underneath the tree house, enjoy a story, activities and finish up with an outdoor nature walk. Pre-registration is required, spaces are limited.”
Online, “The Flame: Scary Stories Edition” is set for Oct. 30 from 7 to 8 p.m., with free admission. “Tune in for a night of Scary Stories from a variety of accomplished, local storytellers, hosted by award-winning actor and one of the creators of Mom’s the Word, Deborah Williams. The Flame is a sold-out monthly storytelling event, celebrating its 12th season. Light some candles and listen outdoors for extra spook!”