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Posts Tagged ‘giardia’

This post brought to you by clean water. From the mountains.

As a more practical addendum to my most recent post, I feel like I should send a shout-out to a pretty much revolutionary device which I used for the first time on this summer’s backpacking trip. Consider this a ScholarAdventurer first: we’re doing product reviews.

Grandpa has recently gone on an exciting quest to eliminate all excess weight from his backpack. On this recent week-long trip, he carried food, tent, stove, fuel, and all necessaries on his back, and yet the pack weighed just over twenty pounds. For comparison, I consider myself fortunate if I can get below thirty.

In the process of cutting weight, he’s acquired the latest in ultralight hiking technology. We slept in a tent that was made of some Rivendell-style gossamer mesh. We ate food that had been dehydrated and then double-dehydrated, for maximum dehydration. However, maybe the most exciting thing Grandpa has discovered is the SteriPen.

See, the thing is that water in the mountains isn’t really drinkable. Sure, you might be able to safely drink the water in certain very remote brooks in like Alaska or the Himalayas, but for the most part water in the Sierra Nevada is contaminated by malevolent parasites, and has been ever since woolly mammoths sought refreshment from crystalline alpine springs.

Or, probably, since the 1970s. Grandpa has fond memories of a time when he would go to the mountains without even a water bottle, and would just dip a tin cup in any passing stream. He blames the change on the hippies, and pack mules, both of which are known for their poor hygiene. For as long as I have been alive, in any case, it has been a really really bad idea to drink from even the highest and most secluded water source without taking protective measures. To do otherwise risks having to deal with this gentleman:


Sorry. I probably should have warned you that some really horrifying imagery was coming there, so the sensitive-of-stomach could avert their eyes. The microscopic world is both wondrous and terrible. This is giardia, which wikipedia informs me is an anaerobic flagellated protozoan parasite. I don’t think I’ve ever met a backpacker who didn’t a least know somebody who had contracted it.

What happens is some infected person or animal (in the mountains, I’m told, it’s often pack mules*) voids its bowels in the water of some high place, or near the water so that the rain will wash it down, and the parasite then lurks there until it gets the opportunity to infest an unsuspecting human. Then, once it’s in your intestines, it waits a few days or even a few weeks, multiplying, biding its time… until it strikes! Deadly diarrhea, pain and suffering, blood and (occasionally, I think) spontaneous combustion. These symptoms can last for weeks and, get this, sometimes they never entirely go away. You get this bug, you could spend the rest of your life in its company.

Anyway, the point is that ever since I started hiking there have been only three really viable ways to make sure your drinking water is as pure and clear as it looks and tastes. You can boil it–which is time consuming, and requires heavy fuel**, you can kill the bugs with iodine (which tastes vile), or you can pump your water through a charcoal filter, which is also time consuming, and labor intensive, but was always my preferred method. There was even something satisfyingly rustic in using the labor of my arms to obtain my water, like some primitive mountain man (with an eighty dollar filtration system) drawing his drink from a well he bored into the hillside.

That is all changed now, though, because modern technology has learned that, actually, weirdly, giardia can also be killed by ultraviolet light.

This is very strange to me. Ultraviolet light, I’m pretty sure, is generated by normal sunlight, which hits lakes in the mountains all the time without killing their bacteria. I suspect that lots of the things that grow in lakes actually probably like sunlight. Nonetheless, we live in interesting times. I spent a full week doing nothing to treat my water except swizzling a little blue light in it before I drank, and I felt a constant nagging fear that I was signing my own death sentence.

Now that over a month has passed, however, and I can say with reasonable confidence that I am not suffering explosive pooping, I can confirm that mountain water can actually be made potable by exposure to ultraviolet light. And if you thought it was satisfying to work your ass off for a bottle of water, wait until you turn on this thing that looks like a miniature lightsaber–this thing which requires no expensive replacement filters, doesn’t change the water’s taste, and weighs practically nothing–and zap the parasites to hell like a goddamn space man.

*About which I could rant a great deal. Sure, they make the mountains accessible for the infirm, the elderly, and the obese, but at what cost?! Their hooves pound the hell out of the trails, leading to erosion and dust. Their feces infect the streams. Now, if you want a good mountain animal–one that actually evolved to climb around in the heights, you need to look somewhere else.

**Because we DO NOT light campfires in the high sierra.

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