Water and Canoe Tripping:  A Messy Fluid Situation.

By Bob Henderson and Chuck Rose

The Water of [Big Trout Lake] Hasn’t Changed: We Have.

To Filter or not to Filter: It Depends.

Water Water Everywhere but Nary A Drop to Drink……Without Human Intervention.

I cannot recall a specific moment in time when water quality issues became a peculiar conundrum for my career as an outdoor educator and more simply as a canoe tripper. Perhaps this is because the transition from freely drinking water on the pristine water systems of Canadian canoe routes to filtering water before drinking the same said water happened slowly. I feel like it snuck up on us and we went from water quality in the wilds being hardly an issue (go back centuries) to an issue of choice (I hardly remember this time of choice) to an issue of much less choice to no choice (consult your risk management plan). 

By now you can tell I’m on the side of drinking freely from pristine water systems on your canoe trips. With help from fellow canoe tripper and water scientist Chuck Rose, we will lay out a position in defense that “natural” water can be trusted. In short, water hasn’t changed, we have. Yet again, Chuck and I are not addressing water modestly and/or certainly heavily affected by human polluting factors. 

“…I’d freely dipped my cup into all these pristine waters …”

Take Big Trout Lake in Algonquin Park or Argo Lake in Quetico or the Yukon’s Big Salmon River or … why not the Upper Clearwater River in Northern Saskatchewan. Good name! I’d freely dipped my cup into all these pristine waters back in time before it was suggested I not.  We also boiled water and drank lots of tea if water quality was in question. The threat, barring industrial or agricultural waste, is Giardia/beaver fever (other microorganisms such as harmful algae blooms and Cryptosporidium are nearly always even less of a risk).  We don’t explore algal blooms or Crypto in this paper.  

We agree of course, politely, supported by evidence-based work that Giardia can be an issue. In pristine waters, Giardia numbers generally measure so low (1 cyst per 100 liters) that infection is highly unlikely; though we are not negating the lake water beaver fever thing. One stool potentially contains 300 million cysts, which are infectious forms of Giardia.  Other qualifiers are also important. Indeed, highest percentages of Giardia reported cases culturally-wide occur from fecal-oral transmission connected with poor hygiene. Infant day care is a common site of Giardia transmission. Shit happens …. in many forms. Better hygiene practices on the trail (more hand sanitizing and hand washing) and more knowledge of water quality threats would be wiser than a blanket policy of “filter it or don’t drink it”. An understanding of our use of the word “wisely” is forthcoming. An upset stomach, diarrhea and gas can occur for many reasons. Too much baking powder in the bannock mix is one issue. Rehydrating food improperly may be another; the freeze-dried farts are real.  The volume of contaminant-receiving waters also matters – many lakes have trillions of times more dilution potential than mountain streams. 

“Diarrhea or other digestive issues on a trip doesn’t necessarily mean Giardia…”

Diarrhea or other digestive issues on a trip doesn’t necessarily mean Giardia or other issues are easily corrected with water filtering. In the case of Giardia, it doesn’t show for two weeks or so. For a proper diagnosis, a stool sample needs to be sent to a lab for confirmation. I’ve experienced a small number of students on trail claiming Giardia within a day of stomach and bowel issues making Giardia the quick “go to” generic label. This is misguided. Dare I say, water filters have not been part of my canoe tripping gear with students for over four decades to the present, both summer and winter. Traveling in pristine water systems is important in my selected route choices. I count myself lucky to live as an outdoor educator and canoe tripper where I have this option. So what did we do on those student trips? (I’ll keep personal trips out of this). We would drink from clean water. In boggy stagnant water sections we’d have clean water in water bottles while traveling. If camped in shallow, questionable root beer-colored tannin waters you can leave a canoe on the ready to fetch water from the deeper water away from shore (step one), then boil the water (microbes are killed before the water hits boiling temperature, no need to over boil) and drink tea. I have a tripping friend who drinks copious amounts of tea three times a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. He also drinks from Big Trout, Argo Lakes etc. In the 60s/70s/80s when we all generally drank the PRISTINE lake water, I never thought of the veracious tea drinker as exercising a safety practice. Perhaps it was? I thought that he just liked tea.

Another interesting point for water and the canoe tripper is the “slurp and run” principle. Repeated tap water drinking or our urban and rural community water sources are a “slurp and re-slurp” or “slurp and stay” phenomena.  You are not likely to be so unlucky as to be infected by a water-borne pathogen on a single wilderness swig or overnight camping stay. The risk of repeated drinking from the same source over a long period is a bigger issue. Of course, community water sources are treated. Less of a need to treat wilderness location travel through water “slurp and paddle on” sources.    

“What’s the big deal, using water filters anyway…”

You might say, “What’s the big deal, using water filters anyway. Why not add a little safety insurance: always err on the side of precautionary?”  Here are some responses to that. Practically, water gets warm quickly on hot summer days when in containers. Less satisfying. Also on the hottest days of summer (it is over 30 degrees Celsius as I write this) it is easy to not keep up on the water filtering and therefore not drinking enough. This is a crushing irony on Big Trout Lake: heat stroke on the lake. Water, water everywhere but nary a drop to drink. On those hot-on-the-water days, one must drink freely and cover up with wet and re-wet clothing. Swim often. Finally, to the filter or not to filter with the usual response WHY NOT! Chuck and I respond Why? To many of us, drinking straight from the lake is the essence of wildness. Precaution, sure, but what is the insidious message? Don’t trust nature! Trust the store. Buy the filter or iodine tablets. Human intervention is simply a wise precaution. Trust human intervention; put something between you and nature. But isn’t something lost? 

Hiker collecting water from the desert spring

The trouble is, “wise” isn’t so straightforward. We Canadians used to trust the pristine water of Big Trout, Argo Lakes and rivers such as The Big Salmon and Clearwater. These waters haven’t changed: we have. Now we shift from the practical to the philosophical. We suggest what is lost is a joyous direct connection with nature, why we are there as likely as not. Drinking water from a lake or river is one of our remaining animal/body/nature unions, a wilding spirit that we are seeking in the first place but rarely articulate. Such language is hard to find for us. Perhaps the quality/need we are speaking of is one deeper than language. When we wear masks to fend off nasty air particles in a near future as a precautionary approach, we might say, well we filter all our water so what is the big deal. Our point: it isn’t just precautionary. Isn’t it also alienating/unnatural and at least, spurious as relating to and in relationship with pristine waters on canoe trips. Again something is lost between the water and us when the filter is brought into play particularly when not necessary for precaution as policy alone. 

“There is a kind of sham about water, drinking it and the water filtering process.”

There is a kind of sham about water, drinking it and the water filtering process. Here are a few stories along that flow of thought. 

I watched a hardworking co-guide on a far north mountain whitewater river filter water into a large blue standard tripping barrel. Serious work even with a serious pump. It was a hot, calm day. Once the barrel was filled he was certainly thirsty and reached into the river for a glorious gulp of cold clean water while the filtered water started the process of warming up in the barrel. Not to mention: do we really know what’s going on with plastic and water?  I asked him, “What gives?” He matter-of-factly responded, “The clients always get filtered water – part of the risk management plan.” Hope you appreciate the sham here. To my mind, the clients are being denied the “real” quality experience for an inferior experience. And, strangely, the clients are unwitting. Are they being denied, in a subtle way, a key part of why they want to be there in the first place? One person’s sham can be another’s common sense. 

A friend tells the story on Lake Temagami (cottages and camps/lodges abound its estimated 5,000 km shoreline and 20,0000 ha) of a youth tripping group on the edge of heat stroke or heat exhaustion. Certainly – to her mind – heat distress. She met them on the water passing by. She encouraged them to drink and soak their clothing and stop to immerse themselves in the water – less swimming could mean more medical treatment at this point. Apparently, the crux of their issue was that one of their two water filters was faulty. They were having a hard time keeping up with their fluid needs in the heat.  Seems to me, a paradox here. The precautionary risk management plan said to always filter all water. However, their loyalty to the plan was compromising the safety of the group. Yes, I would drink Lake Temagami waters unfiltered, particularly in weighing the health threats of heat stress. 

On a Utah canyoneering trip, Chuck’s instructor told the group of mainly college students that we could drink directly from a local spring; amazement filled the faces of some that had apparently never heard of such a thing. Cold water on a hot summer’s day. Magical. Chuck does treat other people’s children with more caution – filters – than his own.

Laurentian University students on Icelandic plateau hiking trip

Finally, while in Iceland on an upland plateau for an overnight hike with young adults, our Icelandic guide encouraged the Canadian hikers to fill their water bottles from the seepage areas of fast flowing rivulets. There was general dismay, then trust and a joyful picture taking session soon ensued of twelve bodies lying flat on the terrain placing their faces into the stream in delight. When in Rome… The joy involved a complex array of emotions I suggest denied in stories above. Firstly, this experience of undenied, free drinking was new and exciting to them. Even a first. Trusting the guide/trusting nature. The water, clean and fresh, involved no human intervention. Not a small point. The sham here is that I fear they would not have trusted me, a fellow Canadian, either in Iceland (fair) or in Canada.  

“Water is water when pristine in our lakes and rivers but should be filtered when not…”

Personally, we are glad to be mostly water, mostly bodily naturally filtered water in Canada or elsewhere. Water is water when pristine in our lakes and rivers but should be filtered when not, say where too many cottages, lodges and towns abound, and sheep and cattle fill the hills and industries are present. This is pollution BUT pollution is NOT in all water. Precaution is NOT always necessary.  We need to be thinking about what is lost with human intervention in the name of precaution. Particularly when a central motivation in the outdoor travel experience is a relationship with nature.

Perhaps the students in Iceland, the guide on that northern river and Bob and Chuck on Big Trout Lake are joyful with a feeling in some back recess of the brain that understands the magic and mystery found in the following D.H. Lawrence short poem “The Third Thing”:

“…there is a third thing that makes it water, and nobody knows what that is.

 “Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, but there is a third thing that makes it water, and nobody knows what that is. The atom locks up two energies but it is a third thing present which makes it an atom.”

Maybe the day will come in our lifetime (decades away if we are lucky) where we will be masking or in an air filtered bubble due to air quality issues. Perhaps sooner in New Delhi or Rome or Toronto than where we may live now. But for NOW as with water as with air, there will be “more pristine” safe places for unfiltering nature and wilding ourselves to the joys of being freely in nature. Drink hearty where you can. It is wise to wild ourselves back into a truer nature when you can. Heck, isn’t that in part why you go?

Thanks to Mike Crowtz for adding ideas for this “treatment.”

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