My surreal weekend with Steve Fonyo

Some people will tell you that social media is a waste of time. Maybe for some it is, but earlier this summer a social media post led me down a completely unexpected rabbit hole involving none other than notorious Canadian anti-hero Steve Fonyo.

Vancouver Shakedown 0929 Steve Fonyo
Source: Waterfall at Desolation Sound

The post was a photo of me sitting in a waterfall in one of my favourite spots in Desolation Sound, which is boat-access-only and about 15 kilometres as the crow flies from the nearest road. Amongst the comments was one by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Alan Zweig (who happens to be one of my favourite directors): “I think that waterfall would be a good place to shoot Steve Fonyo” (with his movie camera).

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I was a little taken aback. In 2015, Zweig and producer Peter Gentile released Hurt: the Steve Fonyo Story to rave reviews. Hurt won the Platform Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival, and also picked up Best Documentary Feature at the Canadian Screen Awards. The film unravels the bizarre story of a fallen star, who had most of his left leg amputated due to cancer when he was 12 years old. The movie begins during the glory days of Fonyo’s 1984/85 coast-to-coast run across Canada for cancer research. He ran even during winter, and eventually raised over $14 million. Despite the incredible feat of completing the run, he has always remained in the shadow of Terry Fox.

Vancouver Shakedown 0929 Steve Fonyo
Source: Steve Fonyo and filmmaker Alan Zweig - Grant Lawrence photo

After the journey, the spotlight faded and Fonyo slipped into a near-30-year life of addiction, homelessness, and crime, which is what the filmmakers eventually found him mired in. On the very last day of shooting, Fonyo was repeatedly stabbed, beaten, and nearly killed in a home invasion, but he survived.

One town offered to do a screening of Hurt: Powell River (Fonyo had recovered from the home invasions, but couldn’t attend because he was back in jail on an unrelated crime). That screening led to Fonyo being invited to a drug rehabilitation centre in Powell River, which he accepted. Fonyo loved the northern Sunshine Coast so much he moved there, cleaning up his act in the process. The turn-around intrigued the filmmakers enough to embark on a sequel, mostly taking place in and around Powell River.

Vancouver Shakedown 0929 Steve Fonyo
Source: Grant Lawrence photo

That’s where I came in. On a gorgeous late summer weekend, I met Fonyo, Zweig, and the film crew at the local music festival in Powell River. Fonyo was jovial and kind, showing off a big smile, eager to meet everyone. He suffers permanent aftereffects from the beating, but nothing seemed to be bothering him.

The next day, the entire entourage arrived at the closest government wharf to Desolation Sound to meet a mini-flotilla of boats that I had arranged. Gingerly making their way down the gangplank was Fonyo, the film crew, Fonyo’s girlfriend, a few other hangers-on, and Lola, their muscle-bound pit bull. Fonyo was sporting a fresh cut across his nose. When my wife asked the director what happened, Zweig replied, “the pitbull bit Steve in the face.”

Despite my sudden misgivings, everyone clamoured aboard my boat and two others and away we roared across glassy seas towards the waterfall. Fonyo was so excited he was on his feet and screaming in ecstasy at the views and the warm wind in his hair.

The trouble started when we finally reached the waterfall. The filmmakers set up for the perfect shot in a sun-dappled cedar grotto, but Fonyo was suddenly having none of it. I got in the waterfall, followed by his girlfriend, followed by director Alan Zweig. Even the pitbull got in the waterfall, but Fonyo wasn’t budging. A truly surreal tug-of-war erupted, involving Fonyo’s artificial leg, and quotes like, “you ran across Saskatchewan in the middle of the winter! This isn’t cold, get the fuck in here!”

I won’t reveal whether or not Steve Fonyo eventually found his redemption in the Desolation Sound waterfall. You’ll have to wait until the sequel to Hurt is released, and there’s no word if the footage will make the final cut. One thing is for sure: social media can lead you to some wild places. 

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