Arroyo Seco River is a tributary of the Salinas River, in central California’s Los Padres National Forest, east a few dozen miles from Big Sur. It’s a rugged section of the state, hot in the summer with rock-strewn hills, stately oak trees, and a few slithering canyons. Through one of those canyons winds a short stretch of the Arroyo Seco, a section called “The Gorge,” or “The Narrows,” an area that draws hikers and paddlers for it’s clear, deep pools and an occasional wild waterfall through the canyon at the gorge.
Over Father’s Day, a man named Curtis Whitson was backpacking with his family when they approached the waterfall. They’d spent a few days floating on tubes, hiking over boulders, exploring the riverside. But at the gorge where Whitson expected a rope allowing safe passage down the 40-foot falls, and which he’d used on a previous trip to navigate down the gorge, he found only a thunderous waterfall and no rope. Impassable. The group was marooned on a small sand island they’d floated to. Whitson and his 13-year-old son scouted for ways to climb out of the canyon they’d floated down, but it was all slick rock above with climbing avenues that dead-ended. Whitson apparently had brought a rope along but didn’t feel confident the family could use it as a means to get down the waterfall. No cell service, apparently no way to head out the way they came, they were stuck.
Until Whitson tried the ole’ message in a bottle trick.
He grabbed a Nalgene, scribbled a note indicating where he, his son, and his girlfriend were camped, scratched “HELP” on the bottle, pitched it into the waterfall, and hoped. The family built a fire, retreated into their tent and waited. Meanwhile, a quarter-mile downstream, two hikers spotted the bright green bottle bobbing in a narrow section of the river. They picked it up, saw the message, and scrambled to float several downstream to a trailhead, then quickly hiked out to a campground a few miles away where they were able to alert authorities.
That night as the family slept, a California Highway Patrol helicopter near the area received the distress call from the campground and headed for the gorge. They dipped low, donned night-vision goggles, and spotted the family’s camp. Seeing they were safe for the moment, the pilot switched on a loudspeaker: “This is search and rescue — you have been found! Stay put and we’ll be back to get you tomorrow morning.”
“A lot of pieces fell into place just right for these folks,” said Joe Kingman, the helicopter pilot.
The message worked as a kind of analog SOS button, the sort of creativity people needed before satellite messaging devices. Relying on a rope that may or may not be there when you need it isn’t optimal, of course. But all things considered, a little backcountry ingenuity never hurts. A lesson learned. Also: Nalgene bottles are good for more than just drinking.