In exactly one month Amy and I will hike into Lost Brook Tract laden with food and supplies for a few weeks of glorious wilderness living. Our initial pack loads will be heavy and the four-mile ascent will be a beautiful toil. At about the halfway point we will reach Lost Brook for the first time, crossing it just before we begin the steep part of the ascent. There we will refill our bottles and drink the glorious, bracing water of a perfect Adirondack stream, a pleasure every back country hiker knows.
The second half of the bushwhack will be demanding, especially with weight on our backs. When we finally navigate the last stretch of thick, tangled boreal forest and plop down in the lean-to we will be hot, sweaty and tired and we will waste no time in descending our short path to the edge of Lost Brook where it runs through our land, not far from its headwaters. Here it is an emerald paradise of moss-covered rock, conifers and ferns. We will find one of the deeper pools and plunge our heads in, letting the cool water run down our bodies. Moving upstream we will perch on our filling rock, dip our bottles in the pure liquid crystal and drink deeply. Our initial water-gathering chores will follow, including a large bucket for general washing and rinsing purposes, a solar shower and a five gallon container with a spigot for cooking.
The water of Lost Brook is an elemental perfection that supplies us in nearly every facet of our back country life. The sight of Lost Brook, the sound of it coursing steeply downward, the feel and taste of the water… these things are our greatest anticipations as we look forward to our residence. Lost Brook signifies freedom, purity, life in the primitive. It is an unfettered elixir, there for the drawing, there for the drinking. No plumbing, no processing, no regulating.
And no filtering.
For decades backpackers have been encumbered by conventional wisdom that says that due to human contamination, water in the wilderness is compromised, even unsafe; therefore said water must be treated to avoid dangerous pathogens. So into the woods we have all marched with a variety of technologies to combat this threat to our safety.
I myself followed an evolution common to backpackers of my generation. I started with iodine pills and drank discolored and unhealthy water as a result. Then along came neutralizing pills: glory! But I felt a nagging disappointment that my wilderness experience was being compromised by having to act as a miniature chemical processing plant, plus even with the neutralizing pill the water tasted treated.
I was a little late to the next part of the party but eventually I caught the water filter wave. What a great idea! Now you have pure, untreated water to drink in all the quantity you like with no chemical signature on your tongue.
God, I hate those things. Call me a wimp but after an exhausting trek the task of pumping water through the filter magnifies from vaguely unpleasant to the level of an indentured burden. And that’s before the filter starts to clog and the act of pumping becomes a labor reminiscent of repeatedly shoving a hard plastic rod into drying cement. Then there is the matter of keeping the right tube sanitary, not besmirching it with an accidental dip in the wrong water. This, of course, never happens.
Still, I could see that filters beat pills by a mile even though they still represented a layer of process that separated me from the natural act of drinking from a wild stream. Like most I grudgingly accepted that the reality of compromised wilderness in the modern age fell somewhat short of the ideal of wilderness that I inhabited in my fantasies, one where I was able to drink in utter liberty.
This accommodation to reality was given a severe test when we acquired Lost Brook Tract. Here was my fantasy of wilderness instantiated, perfect to the last detail, but no feature more so than that verdant, mossy stream running cool, pure and wild. I could not wait to quench my thirst directly from it and the last thing I was going to do was insult the moment with a water filter. Our portion of Lost Brook being high in elevation and far from any camp areas or trails I decided then and there to forego filtering and risk the consequences, including the marquee threat, Giardiasis, the famed “beaver fever.”
But there was another part to my decision. My Dad raised me to be a classic skeptical humanist, a doubter. As the years passed I had become more suspicious of how impure all this back country water was, especially in comparison to the assault of nasty pathogens to which I and everyone else was routinely exposed in more “civilized” realms.
On the one hand our immune system is very good at protecting us and any medical professional can tell you that in many cases we don’t trust it enough. We spend billions of dollars on anti-bacterial everything, polluting our proximate environments with chemicals that are likely more harmful than the dirt and germs we are so worried about. Anyone who is older than my oldest son knows this is a recent phenomenon, trendy marketing garbage that peddles fear.
On the other hand we know the basic things that really do make a difference: good hygiene, especially one’s hands, cleanliness in food preparation, reasonable precautions against contagious diseases and a sanitary method for handling human waste. Assuming good back country habits, all of these are typically more of an issue in civilization than they are in wilderness. Because of the density of civilized life and the wealth of unclean habits in which our fellow human beings engage, the average city is a bazaar of pathogens compared to the trails of the Adirondacks.
Of course the catch is the phrase “good back country habits.” We have all experienced carelessly discarded human waste in the woods and we know that many of our fellow backpackers do no in fact engage in good back country habits. I would not draw water near a privy for all the money in Manhattan. But neither would you. Good judgment about hygiene and sanitation needs to be a given no matter where one is.
But more than simple judgment, what the wilderness has in its favor is low density and a fundamentally clean environment. This is where some common sense ought to reign. On the way out to the Adirondacks I will interact with a dozen or so people, buying food and gas and paying for a motel room. I will use various bathroom facilities six or seven times. What are the odds I am going to catch a bad bug from all of that versus, say, drinking from Gill Brook?
If a healthy dose of skepticism about the risks of back country pathogens is not crazy, it still may be errant speculation, especially with certain dangers. So let’s consider Giardiasis, the grand-daddy parasite of back country lore. To ignore Giardiasis would appear to be folly based upon the wealth of cautions one reads and hears about it, not to mention sales of water filters. Is it?
First, let’s be sure to agree that Giardiasis is no fiction. Giardia lamblia is a nasty little eukaryote, a parasite that can be hosted by a wide variety of mammals and birds, not just beavers. The microbial cyst version can survive for weeks or months in cold water and is resistant to chlorination and other conventional water treatment methods. If ingested in sufficient quantity a parasitic infection in the lower intestine can result, causing a variety of extremely unpleasant symptoms. Giardiasis can be treated with powerful drugs however untreated it will still eventually run its course.
Let me also put to rest any suggestion that I am working from a position of ignorance. I was once diagnosed and treated for Giardiasis and I can assure you that if you become symptomatic (according to my reading only about half of human carriers do) you will not forget it. But it is not fatal or permanently destructive.
Giardiasis sounds bad, but there are lots of things that are much worse. Fortunately for us, many of the worst nasties are hard to contract, leading us to the single operative question: according to actual research, is Giardiasis really much of a risk to contract in the back country? Let’s put speculation aside and see what the scientific literature says.
Here’s a peer-reviewed epidemiological study on the risk of Giardiasis which is available from the National Institutes of Health:. I will excerpt from the abstract:
A meta-analytic study was conducted to test the hypothesis that consumption of water from North American backcountry sources poses a statistically significant risk for acquisition of giardiasis.
Published reports of confirmed giardiasis among outdoor recreationalists clearly demonstrate a high incidence among this population. However, the evidence for an association between drinking backcountry water and acquiring giardiasis is minimal. Education efforts aimed at outdoor recreationalists should place more emphasis on hand washing than on water purification. Further studies should attempt to separate the specific risk factor of drinking water from backcountry sources from other behaviors among this group that may contribute to the risk.
This pretty clearly indicates that our focus is a little skewed. Operate a water filter with dirty hands and you are very likely doing worse than you are dipping a clean bottle into a stream in the Adirondacks.
There is a strong body of research evidence that indicates that lay medicine and lore have mistakenly blamed a variety of back-country human bowel problems on this microbial scapegoat. This well-known article by Thomas R. Welch of SUNY Upstate Hospital is an excellent summary.
Finally, let me offer this gem. A lot of initial work to debunk the overwrought specter of Giardia lambia was conducted in the Sierra Nevada Range. This article by Dr. Robert Rockwell, makes a slam-dunk point that gets lost in the Giardiasis hype by looking at Giardia cysts concentrations in the waters of the Sierra Range and the water supplies for major California cities. The slam dunk point is that Giardia lamblia cysts are omnipresent, including in the Los Angeles and San Francisco water supplies. The San Francisco concentration of cysts, ingested by millions of people every single day, was higher than any source in the Sierra Range. Rockwell goes on to quote from Welch, Thomas R. and Welch, Timothy P.: Giardiasis as a Threat to Backpackers in the United States: A Survey of State Health Departments. Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, Vol. 6, 1995:
“Neither health department surveillance nor the medical literature supports the widely held perception that giardiasis is a significant risk to backpackers in the United States. In some respects, this situation resembles (the threat to beachgoers of a) shark attack: an extraordinarily rare event to which the public and press have seemingly devoted inappropriate attention.”
So, fellow back country enthusiasts: lose the filter and drink hearty. You can be sure I will be joining you as I sup from my beloved Lost Brook. Sure, if it is a pool of discolored water off of some eddy at Marcy Dam, well then maybe not, though even in this case Giardiasis is likely down the list of worries. But if it is Lillian Brook or the Feldspar or some rill in Indian Pass, imbibe away!
Just make sure you keep your hands clean.
Photo: Giardia-free rill at Lost Brook