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COLUMN: Two ways to test for one nasty parasitic protozoan

Ask Bwana

Dear Bwana,

I recently bought a small cabin up in the mountains about 25 minutes from Grangeville and hope to use it as a base to hunt out of each fall. It has a great little spring for my stock that is so clear that I am considering using it for drinking water. I was wondering if giardia is common in the area and, if so, what is the best way to find out if my water is good enough to drink?

Thanks for the help, -Mark

Excellent question, Mark

I’ve had personal experience with giardia, which hitched a ride home with me from a hunt near the Arctic Circle several years ago. Definitely not the souvenir I had in mind. I learned some invaluable lessons through the ordeal and would be glad to share them with you.

Giardiasis or “beaver fever,” not to be confused with the common affliction that plagues most teenage boys, is a disease born from a parasite that attacks the small intestines of humans and other animals. You can become infected with the Giardia parasite by ingesting food or water that is contaminated with the fecal matter of other infected organisms causing giardiasis. Following contact with this nasty protozoan, symptoms will typically develop within one to two weeks, but can rear their ugly head within a day or two. They can range from mild cramping to severe diarrhea and nausea, leading to dehydration and nutritional loss. As uncomfortable and embarrassing as beaver fever is, many cases resolve themselves within several weeks and persistent cases are effectively treated with medications geared toward combatting bacterial and parasitic infections.

Giardia is common in virtually all ground water sources in the lower 48. Even though your water source may be a spring, contact with runoff of any kind could mean contamination of this particular parasite. The most common way of curing your water of giardia is boiling before consumption. A good rule of thumb is to boil your water for at least one minute to kill the parasite unless you are at a higher elevation, in which case I’d recommend you boiling for at least three to five minutes. Several quality filtration systems are also available as well as an iodine treatment system that is very effective. My personal favorite is produced by Katadyn, basically a sports bottle equipped with its own filter; top the bottle off with water, insert the filter and drink.

If you wish to test your water source for fecal coliform simply contact the Idaho state certification officer for a list of laboratories in the area that can perform the test. Be prepared to supply 10 to 15 liters of your spring water for the test and keep your wallet available, as the process is not free. If you wish to conduct your own test, which is much less expensive, there is an alternative at your disposal. Simply fill a sparkling, cold glass full of your spring water and offer it to your mother-in-law as a peace offering for the last confrontation that culminated in her describing you as the degenerate redneck who stole the best years of her only daughter’s life! Within a week, if her saggy cheeks are hugging the porcelain like it’s two-for-one day at Taco Bell, more than likely giardia is present in your spring.

Thanks for the question Mark and best of luck! -Bwana

If you have any outdoor questions with an insatiable need to be answered, submit them to or visit Larry Hatter Worldwide Outdoor Author on Facebook


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