Message in a bottle: California family rescued from waterfall after hikers find SOS

A California family who got stranded on top of a waterfall managed to get help after creating their own version of a message in a bottle.

Curtis Whitson, his son, Matthew Whitson, and his girlfriend, Krystal Ramirez, were hiking near the Arroyo Seco river tributary when they became trapped on top of a 40-foot waterfall. Whitson, who had hiked in the area several times before, said there was usually a rope available to help with the journey.

"This time, the rope was gone," Whitson told CNN. "My heart sank when I realized the volume of water was just too dangerous to make rappelling down possible."

With water rushing around them, Whitson started to realize a safe escape was nearly impossible.

"One bad step or one misjudgment in regards to that strength of that river and it could've just carried us right over the edge and that could've been it," he told ABC News.

Whitson and his son yelled for help, hoping someone might hear them. They even carved messages onto sticks, which they tossed over the large canyons they'd become trapped between.

But they weren't out of idea just yet. As a last-ditch effort, Whitson grabbed a neon green Nalgene bottle and scratched the words " GET HELP" onto the side. He then scribbled a note onto an unused receipt and stuffed it inside the bottle. With their message ready, they threw the bottle into the rushing waters.

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"With one lucky toss, it went right over the waterfall," Whitson told CNN.

There was enough sand in the surrounding beach that the family could scribble "SOS" into the ground. From there, all they could do was wait.

"I looked at Hunter and said we've done all we can do," Whitson told ABC News. "Now it's just a matter of just waiting to see what happens next and wait for people to come."

Half a mile down the river, help was waiting. Two hikers found the note floating in the water, then hiked several miles to notify authorities. A rescue team made it to the family by midnight that night.

"At 12 o'clock at night my dad started shaking me and said, 'They're here, they're here!' And we see a helicopter," Hunter Whitson told ABC News.

"They said, 'This is search and rescue and you have just been found,'" Ramirez said. "And I'm pretty sure I fell to my knees."

The rescuers told the family to stay warm through the night, and a full team arrived the following morning. Even the family seemed shocked that their Nalgene bottle had actually saved them.

"Stuff like that only happens in the movies, really," Hunter Whitson said. "Seeing, like, an actual message in a bottle be the reason someone actually got saved is just mind-blowing to me."