A Ship in the Desert? Searching for a Lost Viking Ship in California
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Back in the days when much of the map was still blank, explorers would follow any waterway in the hopes of finding the next great passage. Yet some rivers can be deceiving, especially those in the volatile region west of the Rocky Mountains. According to local lore, a great ship is stranded in California’s Salton Sea Basin on the edge of the Sonora Desert. Despite having no concrete proof that such a ship actually exists, there is a great deal of debate over its possible origins.

Some say it is a Spanish galleon that was searching for an alternative way around “California Island” (a common misconception in the 16th century). This ship would naturally be filled with treasure. Others claim that the ship belonged to early Viking explorers who managed to navigate a Medieval Northwest Passage and come down the western coast of North America before being stranded. The only way we will ever know for certain is to find the ship.

‘Vikings Heading for Land’ (1873) by Frank Dicksee.

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Rumors of the Viking Ship

Rumors about a desert ship have circulated for years. For this particular ship, the most concrete verification of those rumors came in 1933. Local librarian and nature enthusiast Myrtle Botts was out hiking in the Anza-Borrego desert with her husband. It was early March and the desert was alive with the vibrant colors of wildflower blooms. They set up camp near Agua Caliente and were greeted by a passing prospector. The man had not struck gold but he claimed to have found “a ship lodged in the rocky face of Canebrake Canyon. The vessel was made of wood, and there was a serpentine figure carved into its prow. There were also impressions on its flanks where shields had been attached—all the hallmarks of a Viking craft” (Nazaryan, 2017).

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The Botts went to see if the prospector’s tale was true and sure enough they saw what appeared to be the stern of a ship. However, it was too high up the canyon and the Botts did not have the necessary means for such a rugged hike. So they left and decided to come back in a few days. Unfortunately, that very day, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck Southern California. The Canyon collapsed and the ship was buried in the rubble.

A Viking ship

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There are many places to cast doubt on the Botts’ story. Most notably, how would a ship get into the middle of the desert? There are many explanations but one with some plausibility “holds that an exceptionally large tide from the Gulf of California may have collided with an exceptionally heavy runoff from the Colorado River at the delta, producing a flood which broke through the land barrier to the Salton Sea. The cresting waters could have carried a ship over the natural dam and down into the Salton Sea basin. The flood would have then retreated, leaving the vessel stranded” (Difley, 2017).

This sequence of events is not as improbable as it at first may seem. The Salton Sea Basin, which sits 270 feet (82.3 meters) below sea level, appears to have been a naturally made receptacle for floodwaters. This would have also contributed to the notion that California was an island.

One of the leading experts on the desert ship is John Grasson, a self-declared ‘explorer of legends and lore’. Grasson and the desert ghost ship have recently been featured on “Myth Hunters […] the History Channel filmed an episode for a show about unexplained phenomena (he isn’t sure when it will air), and he recently shot a pilot for American Legends, an Icon Films production for the Travel Channel” (Nazaryan, 2017).

Foreigners Roaming the Lands

Some contend that people may have thought to see a ship but it was really just a mirage caused by the desert heat. Grasson maintains that there is genuine evidence of foreigners roaming these lands centuries before history would suggest. As one example, he cites a 1939 book by Dane Coolidge called The Last of the Seris, which is devoted to the Native Americans who lived around the Gulf of California. Coolidge relates a legend of the Seri people: “Came From Afar Men—the strange whalers who cooked whale meat in an enormous iron pot, ate it and drank the oil.” This is, according to Coolidge, “a record of the old Norsemen who visited the west coast of Mexico long before the Spanish came” (Coolidge quoted in Nazaryan, 2017).

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An illustration from 1917 or 1919 of Vikings on a boat and reaching land.

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Grasson does not claim to know for certain whether it is a Viking ship or a Spanish galleon stranded out in the desert, but he is adamant that there is indeed a ship somewhere out there. “I know this is kind of weird, and a lot of people look at me like I'm nuts,” said Grasson. “But I really think this ship is there” (Nazaryan, 2017).

Grasson does reject some of the wilder claims about the desert ship, for instance, those that say it belonged to King Solomon or one of the lost tribes of Israel. Yet he also rejects some that seem probable as well. In a guide to California published during the Great Depression by the Works Progress Administration, author Kane Springs writes about a ‘shipwreck’ on the edge of the Salton Sea, saying that there was “a boat built in 1862 by a Colorado River mining company, transported part way across the desert by ox team, and then abandoned because of the difficulty of the journey from San Gorgonio Pass to the Colorado River” (Springs quoted in Nazaryan, 2017). After a century of weathering in the desert, the vessel would come to resemble something more ancient. “I don’t think that has anything to do with the lost ship of the desert,” said Grasson (Nazaryan, 2017).