Published: September 2001
The Unforgettable Sea Of Cortez: Baja California's Golden Age 1947-1977: The Life And Writings Of Ray Cannon, By Gene S. Kira. ISBN 0-9632188-2-4 $39.95
Until the mid 1970's the Baja California peninsula was cut off from the rest of the world. When the paved road was finally completed in 1974, a flood of tourists and fishermen arrived by car and recreational vehicle. The impact of such numbers of tourists was immediate and profound. Services were imported or created, and Mexicans from throughout the country immigrated to take advantage of the newly created job market.
First time visitors to Baja often find themselves marveling at their barely suppressed sense of euphoria. It's cause is difficult to define, but the elation does not dissipate over time, and is not limited to just a single nationality. Much like JRR Tolkien's description of mortals marveling at the surreal ambiance in the land of Elves -- many find themselves mesmerized by mirages that lift entire islands high into the sky and by the illusion of flying because the sky and sea have become one. It is a powerful yet benevolent narcotic. When you couple it with friendly natives and impossibly prolific big game fishing, the stage is set to become addicted for life.
Without all of the notoriety caused by enthusiastic fishing reports, the opening of the transpeninsular highway would have caused nary a yawn north of the border. Even heavy promotion by the Mexican department of tourism wouldn't have provoked the mass of people who arrived shortly after the dedication ceremony ended. Someone had to have created and nurtured an enormous amount of interest by the fishing and vacationing American public. That someone was a living legend by the name of Ray Cannon.
An ex Hollywood actor and movie director, Cannon made a decision in 1945 to turn his back on the glamour and glitter of Hollywood and pursue his real love in life, salt water fishing. His natural talent for writing poignant and colorful descriptions of fishing and Baja life ashore led him to pen a weekly column for Western Outdoor News, the newsprint bible for outdoor enthusiasts in the West. He then went on to author a book by the name of, "How To Fish The Pacific Coast". It was an immediate success due to his already established reputation.
His second book, "The Sea of Cortez" took almost twenty years to produce, and when the Sunset Book hit the market in 1966, it caused a sensation. The coffee table style book contained information and beautiful color photographs that were unique. But it was Cannon's creative writing that cinched the fate of the book. Outrageous stories about "fish pileups" and "gamefish in layers" drove countless Western outdoor News readers to near delirium. The Sea of Cortez sold more than a quarter of a million copies before it went out of print and it became an instant cult classic. In the meantime Ray's weekly columns continued in Western Outdoor News, which had soared in popularity.
Ray Cannon spent the twilight of his years living near La Paz and sending fishing reports northward. When at last his ashes were finally scattered upon the waters of the sea that he loved so much, a magical chapter in the history of Baja California came to an end. Since 1976 the Baja peninsula has grown more sophisticated, while unmanaged commercial fishing has decimated much of the incredibly rich sports fishing grounds. Libraries have consumed their copies of The Sea of Cortez, which is out of print. Slowly but inevitably the memory of Ray Cannon is being buried in the backwash of history.
Author Gene Kira obviously spent an enormous amount of time writing, "The Unforgettable Sea of Cortez -- The Life and Writings of Ray Cannon". The full life history of the colorful character is discussed from the time that he jumped aboard a westward bound freight train in Tennessee, to his various acting and directing ventures, and then finally to his self-appointed station in life as the official herald of a majestic desert peninsula and magical sea. Gene deftly weaves Cannon's story into the larger tapestry of the eight hundred-mile long peninsula.
There is an abundance of excerpts from Cannon's weekly columns and "The Sea of Cortez", which should whet the appetite of anyone whose pulse registers above the number "two". Such historical Baja characters as Papa Fernandez, Papa Diaz, Don Johnson, Tom and Shirley Miller, are presented, as are larger than life Hollywood figures such as John Wayne and Chuck (The Rifleman) Connors. Cannon interviewed early trailer boat explorers such as Spencer Murray and photographer Ralph Poole, and the book devotes a suitable amount of text to acknowledge their exploits and feats, and hardiness. (Murray and Poole ventured the length of the gulf in a tiny cabin cruiser in 1959 and subsequently wrote their own minor classic "Cruising The Sea of Cortez".)
I saved something special for last. Gene Kira's lavish selection of photographs has made this book into an instant classic. Do you want to gaze upon incredible images that will set your heart racing? Open to pages 44 - 45. Classic photographs of early "rustic" fishing lodges, thatched palm huts and popular resorts of today that looked like our vision of Mexico in the 1930's will treat the viewer's eye.
From this point on, a copy of Cannon's "The Sea of Cortez" would be incomplete without "The Unforgettable Sea of Cortez" alongside. For Baja buffs, the book is indispensable -- a brand new wellspring of Cannon stories, Western Outdoor News columns and anecdotes.
[Reviewer's Notes: I must confess that Ray Cannon's articles in Western Outdoor news was a pivotal influence on my youthful mind in the early 1960's. Early hand-me-down copies of Western Outdoor News fueled a budding passion to travel to Lower California. So powerful and compelling was his description of life and fishing in "Lower California" to my brother and a group of friends, that they organized a Jeep expedition and to my amazement I found myself selling the most prized possession that a youth could have -- my automobile was liquidated in order to finance passage on the journey.