The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trapped at a waterfall, this man sent out an SOS message in a bottle. Someone actually found it downstream.

Hoping to alert people that he and his companions were in need of rescuing, Curtis Whitson sent this bottle down a waterfall. (Cindi Barbour) (Cindi Barbour)
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Curtis Whitson felt sick to his stomach when he realized that he, his girlfriend and his 13-year-old son were suddenly stranded on an isolated stretch of California’s Arroyo Seco tributary. They had reached the most difficult part of their four-day floating and camping trip over the summer, and they were trapped atop a raging, 40-foot waterfall.

A rope that was supposed to be secured at the top of the chute — the only safe way down — was missing. There was no way to climb out of the gorge.

A sturdy rope had been attached to the slippery rock wall when Whitson had made the same journey seven years before. At the time, he had carefully rappelled down the side of the waterfall in 15 minutes and continued his adventure.

Thoughts raced through Whitson’s mind: Heavy spring rains had likely washed the rope away. There was no other way to safely get down. He had packed a rope in his camping gear, but he estimated that the water was too swift and high to attempt to attach his rope and rappel down. Friends knew they were in Arroyo Seco, but it might be several days before a search party was dispatched.

There was no cell service. He desperately needed a plan.

Whitson looked at his lime-green Nalgene water bottle, and he suddenly had an idea: He scratched “HELP!” on each side of the bottle and scribbled an SOS note on a piece of paper with the date, June 15, and their whereabouts — then tucked it inside. He tossed the bottle over the water chute and silently begged the universe for somebody downstream to find it.

It was a very long shot.

“We’ve done all we can do,” he recalled telling his girlfriend, Krystal Ramirez, and son Hunter Whitson after he dropped the bottle over the roiling chute. “The only thing left to do now is wait.”

Remarkably, they didn't wait long.

The trio made their way a few yards upstream to a strip of sand and crafted an SOS sign with rocks.

Then they climbed into their sleeping bags. About midnight, they were awakened by a voice from a loudspeaker:

“This is search and rescue — you have been found! Stay put and we’ll be back to get you tomorrow morning.”

Whitson could barely fathom that his message in a bottle was discovered within hours of tossing it over the waterfall.

“It blows me away how it all came perfectly together,” he said. “What are the odds?”

Whitson, 44, a self-employed glass and door repairman from Morro Bay, Calif., set out on June 13 with his ninth-grade son and Ramirez, a 34-year-old bartender, eager to show them the wild beauty of the Arroyo Seco — a 40-mile tributary of the Salinas River in central California.

“It’s a paradise off the beaten path — a gorgeous place to take a float trip and get away from the crowds,” he said. “We were all looking forward to camping along the river, under the stars.”

The first night, they built a campfire and pan-fried a steak, serving it with quinoa and having chocolate protein bars for dessert. The last thing any of them expected was that they would become stranded, Whitson said.

On the third day, when the trio realized that they couldn’t rappel down the wall to continue their journey, Whitson initially carved “We need help!” into a stick with his pocketknife and tossed it down into the water. When he noticed that the stick was circling in the pool but not going through the narrows, he decided to try again, using his water bottle.

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“He asked if I had something to write with, and I remembered that I'd brought pens and a bar order pad for a way to keep score playing card games,” said Ramirez. “I'm very competitive."

On the paper, Whitson scribbled the date and “WE ARE STUCK HERE @ THE WATERFALL GET HELP PLEASE.” This time, his aim was perfect and the bottle sailed into the pool, then disappeared through the narrow passageway.

“It was a sad realization, to know that our trip was over and we needed help,” Whitson said. “Every inch down that river had committed us to a spot where we couldn’t get out."

“It was a little scary,” Hunter added. “We hadn’t seen a single soul the entire trip,”

Ramirez was grateful they had told friends where they were going.

“I knew that our friends would call somebody at some point when we didn't show up,” she said. “But I was worried about how long it might take for anyone to find us."

The three of them later found out that about a quarter-mile downstream, two hikers had spotted the bright green bottle right away, read the note and hiked to the Arroyo Seco Campground to alert manager Cindi Barbour to call a search and rescue team.

“They told me they found the bottle in the narrows of the river,” Barbour said.

A sick child couldn’t leave his house. So strangers came to his window by the dozens to entertain him.

Although it was quickly growing too dark for a rescue operation, California Highway Patrol helicopter pilot Todd Brethour decided to do a flyover with his crew before the end of their shift.

Using night vision goggles and infrared technology to detect heat from a campfire, they were able to spot the stranded trio.

“We were all dead asleep when we suddenly heard the helicopter right above us,” Ramirez said.

They jumped up and down. They hugged. They cried.

The next morning, a second California Highway Patrol helicopter crew arrived at 10 a.m. to lift each of them to safety, harnessed to a safety line, one at a time.

“As you can imagine, they were very happy to see us,” pilot Joe Kingman said.

He added that in his 23 years of rescuing people, this is the first time he had heard of a rescue because of a message in a bottle.

“A lot of pieces fell into place just right for these folks,” said Kingman, 51.

About a week after their rescue, as they were still processing their adventure and unlikely rescue, Ramirez bought her boyfriend a gift: a new Nalgene bottle.

Inside, she tucked a love note, confident he would find it.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Whitson said he brought a rope with him on the trip, but he thought the water was too high and swift to attempt to attach it at the waterfall.

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