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Tucson Weekly A Piece Of History

Jack London memorabilia is easy to find in the Baja -- if you know who to ask.

By Kevin Franklin

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  FOR AN 800-mile-long peninsula, Baja sure is a small place. Graham Machintosh walked the 3,000-mile circumference of Baja's shoreline and wrote a book about it called Into A Desert Place. While making his trek he ran into José Luis and Alberto MacLish, descendants of Protestant Scottish immigrants who came to the west coast of Baja just north of Guerrero Negro, and whose influence, religion and names can still be found there. Later Machintosh bumped into Scott Wayne in Baja, while Wayne was working on the first edition of Lonely Planet's Baja California.

Much later, I read Wayne's book and found in it clues to the location of the Sophia Sutherland, the ship on which Jack London based his book The Sea Wolf.

While searching for the wreck on a remote, empty beach, the Out There crew runs into Mario MacLish, José Luis and Alberto's brother. Remembering the MacLish name from Into A Desert Place, we strike up a conversation with Mario in Spanglish. As it turns out, he knows where to find the wreck of the Sophia Sutherland. So in short, I read Wayne's work, Wayne knows Machintosh, who knows José Luis, who knows Mario, who knows the location of the wreck, and we know Mario. Six degrees of separation, Baja style.

Perhaps if there were fewer people everywhere, we'd know more of them.

Mario points out where the wreck is on our map and we head across the desert.

Mario said the wreck tends to come and go with the storms and the shifting of the beach sands. From a logical point of view, I suspect our odds of finding anything are slim at best. Still, I can't contain some giddy optimism. I grew up reading Jack London books, and the Sophia Sutherland was an integral part of the man and his stories. London based Wolf Larsen's ship, The Ghost, on the Sutherland, but there's more to this old wreck than just a model for a fictional ship. As a 17-year-old, London actually sailed on the Sutherland to hunt seals in the northwest Pacific. That onboard experience shaped the mind of one of America's greatest adventure writers. London never went sealing again, but he sailed all his life. He owned a number of boats, including the Roamer and Razzle Dazzle.

Finding the Sutherland would be like finding Ed Abbey's first backpack or Theodore Roosevelt's boyhood rifle. It's an artifact from the foundation of the American psyche. Who has read The Call of The Wild or White Fang and not become attached, in at least some way, to the American myth of the frontier and the dangerous pursuit of adventure? London's stories epitomize our youthful fantasies of striking out into the unknown--though for London they were not fantasies but actual experiences. The ship we seek carried London into a great adventure. Finding its ruins will be another, if lesser, adventure.

The Sutherland was built at the end of the era of commercial sailing ships. In The Sea Wolf the character Van Weyden describes the Ghost, and through his description we see how London saw the Sutherland:

The "Ghost" is considered the fastest schooner in both the San Francisco and Victoria fleets. In fact, she was once a private yacht, and was built for speed. Her lines and fittings...speak for themselves...He spoke enthusiastically, with the love for a fine craft such as some men feel for horses...the "Ghost" is an 80-ton schooner of a remarkably fine model. Her beam, or width, is 23 feet, and her length little over 90 feet...I marvel that men should dare to venture the sea on a contrivance so small and fragile.

We follow Mario's directions to a dune-field adjacent to a large, sweeping bay. The wreck is hidden in these dunes. My friend Bob Moulton and I climb a nearby dune and scan our surroundings. A large angular object jumps into the view of my monocular. It's just on the other side of our camp. We jog over and discover a debris field of wooden ship parts: We found it!

For most people this wreckage would be little more than worthless bits of wood. But for me, it's a connection to the past, and perhaps an inspiration for the future.

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