Summertime is the perfect season to explore the great outdoors. This year, however, has been a reminder of just how quickly things can change when mother nature is involved. From animal encounters to wild, unpredictable weather, planning for every situation becomes almost impossible.
So when Curtis Whitson, his girlfriend, and his 14-year-old son set off on a 4-day camping excursion along the Arroyo Seco River in central California, chances are they never expected to end up trapped atop a 40-foot waterfall, but on day three of their adventure, that’s exactly where the trio found themselves. “It’s a paradise off the beaten path — a gorgeous place to take a float trip and get away from the crowds,” Whitson told The Washington Post. “We were all looking forward to camping along the river, under the stars.”
Whitson had traversed the area years before and was unaware that the rope previously placed to allow hikers to repel down the waterfall had since disappeared. Unable to turn back, the group hunkered in and prepared for the worst. “It was a sad realization, to know that our trip was over and we needed help. Every inch down that river had committed us to a spot where we couldn’t get out,” adding “It was a little scary. We hadn’t seen a single soul the entire trip.”
Following a failed attempt to send an SOS message carved into a stick, Whitson had a final plan to send his bright green water bottle over the falls in hopes someone would see it and send help. After carving “HELP” into the plastic, Whitson’s girlfriend, Krystal, had brought a pen and pad, allowing them to scribble down their location on a note they stuffed inside the bottle before sending it down the raging rapids.
“I knew that our friends would call somebody at some point when we didn’t show up,” Ramirez said. “But I was worried about how long it might take for anyone to find us.”
There was nothing left to do but settle in and hope for the best.
A few hours later, asleep at their makeshift camp, the family was awoken by the sound of a helicopter hovering over the falls. It was a search and rescue team who were alerted to their plight thanks to two hikers who spotted a water bottle floating down the river. The rescue team telling the hikers over their loudspeaker to hang tight and that help was on the way first thing in the morning.
In the early morning light, California Highway Patrol assisted in airlifting the family to safety, helicopter pilot Joe Kingman in awe of the circumstances leading to their rescue. “A lot of pieces fell into place just right for these folks,” said Kingman, who shares this is the first time in his 23 year career where a literal message in a bottle led to a successful rescue.
Whitson too is shocked everything happened as it did. “It blows me away how it all came perfectly together,” he said. “What are the odds?”