Would you drink this? If you were way out in the boonies and it looked clean–maybe if it was coming straight out of the rocks, would you just lean down on a hot day and have all you wanted? I used to do that. Actually, I used to drink a lot of water that was questionable and I don’t think I ever suffered the consequences. But now, I wouldn’t. One of the reasons I wouldn’t is that recently I had a chance to revisit some of my old haunts and when I leaned down to drink from what had been a clean spring twenty years ago, the pool of cold water was filled with foot long fronds of algae that hadn’t been there a second ago in my memory. That struck home. Something’s different about the water now. So, would I drink that? Maybe. If it was a pristine spring in remote country, high mountains, upper treeline, yeah sure I’d drink it. Pretty much anywhere else, I’d have to say no. I might fill a canteen with it, lob in a couple of iodine bombs, and drink it a couple of hours later. That wouldn’t be too much of a gamble. In most places I’d do more than that. I’d filter it and boil it and be careful not to cross contaminate my gear. It’s an inconvenience, but I take the time to be safe.
I’m not sure when things changed, but I noticed it about ten years ago. I’d heard the stories before that–people were talking about beaver fever even in the 70’s–but I used iodine or boiled everything I drank. Never had a problem. Suddenly that became a bad idea in most people’s minds. All water became polluted. Giardia, cryptosporidium, salmonella, typhoid–hey, it can’t be the fault of the beavers. The beavers have been here longer than we have.
But, things truly are different, and it’s undoubtedly something we’ve done. If nothing else, every hiking trail in every scenic area hosts an annual population of hikers at least equal to a small town and often more. Toilets are usually scarce and the sanitary habits of campers are horrible. We probably gave the beavers diarrhea, not the other way around.
With lots of purification options around, it should be a simple problem to solve. Look at any ad for any purification tablet, water filter or electronic gizmo and you’ll see there’s nothing to worry about–unless you buy someone else’s product. Read the fine print and it’s clear that no one wants to say they have the final answer.
Reluctantly, I consulted the government for advice. The Center for Disease Control actually agrees with me on this: double up. Don’t just filter the water. Filter and boil it. If you can’t do that, filter it and drop a purification pill in it. If that’s not possible, go back to the basics. Boil it. Boiling for three minutes even at high altitude should get rid of everything immediately dangerous.
If you can’t do that, and you have to go back to the old system of two hundred years ago when if you found a stream of clear water that looked clean it probably was–well, good luck to you. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. Now you get to test the rumours and find out what’s true right here, today.