Backpacking and the Dreaded Giardia—A Parable

I have been a serious backpacker since I was 13. In the days of my youth there were no trail quotas, no bear canisters, few regulations. I always carried a Sierra Club cup on my waistband, and when we crossed a stream I would dip some water and drink—the coldest, purest, most delicious water in the world.
But in about 1980, while I was living in Kenya, I learned that Sierra Nevada water had been infested by a microscopic critter, giardia. Various tales were told as to how the microbe spread, but testimony was unanimous that you could no longer drink water from the streams without possibility of infection. You had to boil or filter water before you drank it.
I was horrified. It seemed that the innocence of my youth had been stolen away. Nevertheless, I complied. For the last 25 years I have been boiling and filtering my water when I went backpacking.
Then last year my son Chase sent me an article written by a medical doctor claiming that the water in the Sierra was actually quite safe. I read it suspiciously but it seemed to be genuine. Extensive testing had been done, and the water of Sierra streams was considerably safer than the water of San Francisco. I did some further snooping on the internet and found corroboration. (Here is the link to one article, which only Sierra backpackers are likely to find interesting: http://www.ridgenet.net/~rockwell/Giardia.pdf . A google search for “Sierra giardia” will turn  up others.)
Last summer I decided to give my life to science and try drinking water without filtering it. No problems. I did it again this summer—same results. I have my youth back. The euphoria I feel dipping my cup in the stream, without any intermediary between me and nature, is extraordinary.
Now, this little anecdote, while interesting to backpackers, is of little moment to others. But it might cause you to wonder: how much of what “everybody knows” is really true? In this era of internet news and blogging, when information can spread around the world without encountering a skeptical editor along the way, care is more in order than ever.

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2 Responses to “Backpacking and the Dreaded Giardia—A Parable”

  1. Micah Says:

    I find that last sentence somewhat puzzling, given what led up to it… in 1980 there was no interwebs, and we were stuck with word-of-mouth rumors and what “they say.” It’s *because* of the internet that we can easily fact-check, with the help of sites like snopes.com, and open ourselves to dissenting views on almost everything. Of course, that also means there’s no shortage of wackos with axes to grind and time to burn… like bloggers, right? 🙂 Still, I think the best thing about the internet is not being limited to one’s own familiar circle in which everyone agrees with each other about anything… the truth is out there, for any subject, if anyone really wants to find out.

  2. Buck Says:

    No disrespect to you intended, but the Rockwell article is fill of misinformation, including his conclusions.

    http://bucktrack.com/Giardia_Hiking_Water.html

    For example, SF city water is unquestionably much safer from pathogens than Sierra mountain water. It’s run through a water treatment plant! I don’t know of any epidemiologists that accept his paper, which is not a peer-reviewed scientific paper.

    I’ve had giardia three times, the last time from the Sierra.

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