Giardia has long been considered the scourge of the backcountry, where every water body was assumed to contain a healthy population of these critters or some other related pathogen. Ingestion of this parasite often results in giardiasis, popularly known as beaver fever, a common form of gastroenteritis, characterized by a combination of diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain and cramping.
Although most backcountry explorers deal with the threat of giardiasis and other illness-inducing pathogens by some combination of boiling, chemical treatment or filtering, some chose to disregard all warnings and drink directly from natural water sources.
Are they insane?
Probably not, although I am not a trained psychiatrist so my opinion may not count for much. They just maintain that the presence of Giardia (and presumably all other types of water borne pathogens) are more myth than reality, and that the risk of infection is too low to warrant the time, effort and weight of carrying of extra fuel, chemicals or a water filter.
These individuals often appear to maintain the belief in an idyllic wilderness, where man (and everything else) is in a state of grace with his surroundings, unlike in civilization, where danger lurks around every corner. Although I sympathize with this philosophy at times, it is a simplistic worldview, and one that could be harmful to your health if taken to the extreme.
Typically, these individuals espouse the idea of the mythology surrounding the presence of Giardia in the backcountry. Instead of treating natural backcountry water sources, they advocate drinking directly out of carefully selected water bodies. I believe this advice is ill-advised, and anyone taking it should know the risks involved, if such a thing is even possible.
The ardent belief that some natural water sources in the Adirondack are safe to drink has been perpetuated here at the Adirondack Almanack as well. In a recent post, Pete Nelson advocated drinking directly out of carefully selected water bodies in the Adirondacks. Unfortunately, Pete’s article reflected the attitude found in the writings of these true believers in that it smacked of a belief in search of evidence to back it up.
In addition, Pete’s article, with its High Peak centric viewpoint, failed to address the low elevation majority of the Adirondacks, where many water sources are populated with beavers, as well as a myriad of other organisms, dumping their excrement into their depths on a daily basis.
As far as evidence about the safety of backcountry water sources in the Adirondacks, there are scant studies available in the literature indicating one way or the other on this issue. I could only find a single study from within the Blue Line where actual sampling occurred, and that was in only two ponds. Unfortunately, I could not obtain a copy in time for its inclusion here.
Many of the studies within the literature are from the High Sierras. Some carefully selected subset of these articles are trotted out whenever the anti-filtering crowd feels they need to prove their point. The only problem is that the High Sierra and the Adirondacks are thousands of miles apart and have little in common. I have spent some time in both places, and clearly the Adirondacks ain’t no High Sierras, regardless if you adhere to the provincial view that the High Peaks IS the Adirondacks or not.
As far as experiencing a pathogen-related ailment, I have little personal experience. Occasionally, I hear a story about someone suffering through giardiasis after a backcountry trip, but rarely is the diagnosis based on a fecal test. There is a good reason for this, who really wants to paw through someone else’s crap if they do not have to.
The closest I ever came to backcountry gastrointestinal stress was while working on the New York State Breeding Bird Atlas in the Adirondacks during 2002. My partner for that study spent an inordinate amount of time scurrying off into the woods every 15 minutes for the first week that summer. After finally going to a clinic in Speculator, the diagnosis was some sort of pathogen infection, with a hefty fee to perform actual testing to be certain of its identity. Since the treatment was the same regardless of the pathogen, he chose to save the cash, but he attributed the infection to drinking untreated water from a questionable source in the Duck Hole area.
Unfortunately, most cases of pathogen-induced sickness from untreated backcountry water sources are anecdotal, with the vast majority lacking the testing required to identify the pathogens with any certainty. Therefore, they need to be considered with some skepticism.
The Giardia skeptics dismiss any possible cases of backcountry pathogen infection as contamination due to poor hygiene. Do they propose that other people infected these people? In that case, what if these people were out solo in the backcountry? Did they infect themselves? Or, did they ingest the pathogens due to their own dirty hands? Are pathogens in higher concentrations in the soil, but not in the water? The skeptics rarely address these issues.
So what is the solution?
Do not cease treating backcountry water anytime soon for one thing. At least not until there is more definitive evidence about the safety of Adirondack backcountry water sources. But, for Pete’s sake, cease suffering through the pumping of water through a semi-clogged filter, and go out a buy a gravity filter instead.
In the long run, a systematic scientific study based on field sampling of Adirondack backcountry water sources is necessary. A random sample of water bodies, including streams, creeks, ponds and lakes on state-owned public land in the Adirondacks, tested at several different labs (for quality control purposes), would put an end to this argument, at least for a while.
Now all we need is the funding to get it started. Perhaps some members of the water treatment industry would contribute. Any volunteers willing to pony up some fat stacks? Any skeptics willing to put their money where their skepticism is?
Maybe I should just put it on Kickstarter, and see how much money comes rolling in.
Until then, let the argument swirling around the safety of natural Adirondack water sources continue. In the meantime, I will still treat my backcountry water as I have always done. Better safe than having abdominal cramps, nausea and a very sore hiney weeks after exiting the backcountry.
Photo: Sitz Pond, Sitz Creek and Middle Branch Oswegatchie River by Dan Crane.