Lost & Found

Morro Bay family rescued after sending message in a bottle over waterfall

Hikers stranded during trip in Los Padres Forest

Morro Bay family rescued after sending message in a bottle over waterfall

MORRO BAY, Calif. - Curtis Whitson and his family are fortunate to be alive. They have a message in a bottle, along with two unknown hikers, to thank for helping rescue them from a harrowing situation.

"I don't think this type of thing happens to virtually anybody," said the Morro Bay resident, referring to a  camping trip he'll never forget.

Whitson, his 13-year-old son and girlfriend decided to spend Father's Day weekend backpacking along the Arroyo Seco River in the Los Padres National Forest.

It was a place the Cuesta and Cal Poly graduate was quite familiar with. He had hiked in the area several times before.

"Anything can happen on a trip like that," said Whitson. "There's always something that you risk."

The plan for the trip was to hike along the river, traverse down a waterfall and then float to a campground about two miles away.

However, once Whitson came to the waterfall, the trip unexpectedly halted.

"We came to the waterfall and knew immediately it was not what we wanted to see in regards to the water levels," said Whitson.

Whitson said there was no way to rope down the steep cliff, estimated to be between 40-to-50 feet high.

Another option was to hike around the falls, but that too proved to be too difficult to attempt.

Having nowhere to go, Whitson and his family were essentially stuck atop the waterfall, in a remote location with no cell phone service or anyway to contact someone.

After hearing hikers below them, Whitson attempted to write a rescue note on a stick.

He quickly figured out that idea wasn't going to work.

Soon afterwards, the group came up with another creative option.

"Looking around, I saw my water bottle and decided that I would use that as a note to get to these guys," said Whitson. "Threw it quickly over the waterfall and got lucky because if it had not gone over the waterfall, there would have been no way to push it over the waterfall."

With the note down the river, the family hiked a little bit back up the river.

"That was it," said Whitston. "We looked at each other and knew that we had exhausted everything that we could and now how long was it going to take for someone to find us."

As luck would have it, the old-fashioned note in the bottle was discovered by two unknown hikers below.

"We were fortunate that they were drawn to the water bottle," said Whitson. "Once they got it, they saw it was all scratched and then they were able to see the note inside of it and pulled out the note and realized that something serious was going on."

Once the hikers found the note, they walked back to the campground and altered authorities. 

A few hours later, the group was discovered by rescuers in a helicopter.

The next morning they were brought to safety by the California Highway Patrol.

Now, Whitson's experience is drawing worldwide attention.

On Wednesday, he was featured on Good Morning America.

"It makes for a great story that I'll be happy to tell because it has such a great outcome," said Whitson. "My girlfriend, my son, nor I was injured in any way. It just feels like a touch of Hollywood and there's nothing Hollywood about any of us. We're just normal people that had a fortunate set of circumstances that worked out the way it did that created such a wonderful outcome."

Nearly three months later, Whitson is still amazed all of this has come due to something as quaint as a message in a bottle.

"To have that be a part of our story is incredible and surreal to realize that's what it took to be brought to rescue," said Whitson. "It was just kind of like the stars all aligning for things to work out the way that they did and it's just amazing how one thing affects the other and in this instance, it just affected it in such a positive way, a miraculous way."

Whitson still doesn't know who the two hikers are that discovered the bottle. He's hoping they will be found so he can thank them personally.


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