Message in a bottle from Hawaii finds way to Santa Rosa family after 13 years

The message was cast into the ocean off Maui in 2006 and was found this year along the Russian River. Its intended recipients: A family that moved back to Sonoma County in 2007.|

It may be possible to calculate the chances that a plastic bottle tossed in the Pacific Ocean from Maui will make its way to the Sonoma Coast and into the Russian River at Jenner.

But that’s just where this story starts, and the coincidences pile on quickly enough for a fairly astonishing tale.

Ask Eric McDermott. He’s the guy who found the lightly scuffed water bottle last April, crusty with mud, sealed shut and empty, but for a folded and rolled piece of 8½-by-11-inch paper with black, handwritten lettering and the date: January/February 2006.

Also spelled out were the names of three children - siblings from the Bricker family, then ages 4, 7, and 10 - and the Norman, Oklahoma, street address they called home for 3½ years between long-term stays in Santa Rosa.

When McDermott, an Earth Day volunteer motoring by boat around the Russian River estuary in search of trash to collect, found the bottle and the message therein, the Brickers had long since moved back to Sonoma County and the children were mostly grown up.

One had finished college. One was married.

But somehow, against the odds, that plastic bottle found them still, 13 years after a family friend on vacation in the Hawaiian islands launched it on an uncertain voyage 2,400 miles away, according to their father, Brian Bricker.

“The world works in mysterious ways,” said McDermott, 30, his facial expression still one of amazement, months after tracking the Brickers down and finding they were mere miles away from the spot near Jenner where he retrieved the note. “What are the odds?”

Pretty extreme, says John Largier, professor of oceanography at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Lab in Bodega Bay.

“There’s probably a million different places it could have landed,” he said. “This is just one of them, so it’s really a small likelihood.”

Brian Bricker said the bottled message - asking anyone who found it to contact his children - was one of at least 10 that he knew of cast into the world by a late friend, Michele Coutin, a quirky woman who had befriended his mother, Diana Madden, during a long period in which she lived in a northwest Santa Rosa convalescent home.

Coutin, who died in 2012 while in her 80s, was an ombudswoman at the convalescent home but often traveled internationally. She thought it would be a kick for the Bricker kids if “someone from who knows where in the world” were to contact them one day, their father said.

Though Brian Bricker and his now ex-wife, Alicia Bricker, a mortgage loan processor for Magnolia Bank, both moved to Santa Rosa as children and started their family here, they moved to Oklahoma in the early 2000s so Brian Bricker could work with his brother. They thought it was a permanent move.

But in 2007, a year or so after Coutin’s Maui trip, the family moved back to Santa Rosa, where Bricker worked for REACH Air Medical Services and, later, the Committee on the Shelterless, or COTS. He moved last week to Sacramento, where he starts a job next week with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

He said he met Coutin in about 1984, when his mother became paralyzed, and was in touch with her until the move to Oklahoma.

“She traveled a lot, and she always said, ‘Hey, when I went here, I threw a bottle in the ocean for you guys,’ and wherever she traveled, she would do it,” he said.

But no one ever heard anything back, and the Brickers had given no thought to those missives over the years.

In the meantime, Allyson Bricker, 23, just finished school at Sacramento State and is applying to medical schools. Dylan Bricker, 20, got married last year and lives in Temecula. Alexa, 17, is about to start her senior year at Maria Carrillo High School and plans to take the real estate exam this winter, her mother said.

When McDermott, a fisheries biologist with Sonoma Water, was out hunting garbage on Earth Day, he nearly mistook the water bottle for just another piece of trash after stumbling upon it on the south river bank near Penney Island. But he saw faint lettering inside and put it aside in the boat to check out later.

When he cut open the bottle, “Instantly, it was like, ‘This has got to be a fake,’?” he said. The note was in such great shape. Then he went online to try to track down the Bricker children through Facebook without much luck, but quickly found another Bricker through Google linked to a Norman, Oklahoma address.

Her name was Alicia Bricker. And her current address? Santa Rosa, California.

“She was like, ‘This is crazy!’?” McDermott said.

The two have communicated by phone, but haven’t met yet, though McDermott wants to get the note and the bottle back to her and the kids.

“It was just the coolest thing to know that it traveled that far and was actually found by someone and the note was in great shape,” Alicia Bricker said.

Largier wishes there were a way to retrieve some memory from the bottle, an object with so vast an oceangoing experience, if for no other reason than to chart what must have been a wild ride around the Pacific.

He said it likely journeyed south from Hawaii first, then west toward the Philippines and Asia, potentially circling a time or two around the North Equatorial region, maybe visiting the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and possibly taking a counterclockwise swing through the Gulf of Alaska before heading down the California coast.

It could have gotten hung up anywhere along the way, bobbing in one spot for a time until a wind came and blew it free.

“If only it could talk,” Largier said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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