Never in 30 years of backcountry camping have I come back from a trip with stomach issues -- at least not until this year. I have known for a long time that the lake water in northern Ontario can contain parasites and so we have always been careful with our drinking water, diligently treating or filtering our drinking water on every occasion. In fact, we don’t even brush our teeth with unfiltered lake water for fear of one of those little parasites and its friends finding their way into our intestines. But, as it turns out, this year I wasn’t careful enough.
When I first came back from our two-week trip I felt fine: I experienced a little muscle fatigue from all of the physical activity I engaged in during the trip (portaging canoes, paddling, foraging for firewood etc.), but otherwise I felt rested and even mentally refreshed. About a week and a half later, things changed. I started to develop symptoms that at the time I thought were consistent with a mild stomach flu. I began to experience indigestion, minor cramping, intermittent diarrhea, some rather dramatic and potent flatulence, and extreme fatigue. One crappy day turned into another, and then another. I wasn’t getting any better and in fact, I was feeling crappier. Two weeks later, with symptoms unabating, and even worsening, I began to think this might be something other than the common stomach flu. Meanwhile, during those two weeks Shelley started to develop similar symptoms. It was time to do something other than wallow in our crappiness.
Applying her prodigious internet-search skills, Shelley began to aggressively work Google’s search engine, entering our symptoms to see what possible diagnoses Google would return. A theme started to emerge rather quickly: 'Giardia', or more colloquially, 'Beaver Fever! '
Oh crap! This was not good!
The symptoms described in one website after another almost perfectly matched the crap we were going through.
You can read about Giardia here, here, here and here. Giardia is a parasite that coats the lining of the intestine. It is microscopic, but magnified it looks like a real ‘bug’ with a body, a flagellum (tail) and other useful equipment. Oddly enough, the body of this creature looks like a face. If it was much larger, I could envision my kids wanting one as a pet. There would be fighting over who gets to keep it in their room and in the end everyone would want one of their own. But you really don’t want one of these. As they line the intestine, they block absorption and breakdown of food that is consumed, particularly fats. The undigested fats lead to malodorous crap, and I gather that somewhere along the line sulfurous gas is released, which might explain the exotic flatulence. It turns out that the symptoms begin to manifest about one to two weeks after infection, which explains why I felt fine just after I came home from the trip. According to my sources, some people who contract the parasite never actually show noticeable symptoms.
Giardia parasites are often carried by beavers (hence the colloquial name “Beaver Fever”) and are expelled into the water when they crap. Not surprisingly, Giardia is most commonly found in lakes occupied by beavers. The thought of drinking remnants of beaver droppings sends shivers down my spine. Ingesting crap is generally not recommended and both common sense and expert consensus dictate that it should be avoided at all cost. It turns out that it is possible to contract Giardia even if you filter your drinking water properly. You can unsuspectingly contract Giardia just by getting some water in your mouth while you are swimming in the lake, or from high-fiving a beaver who hasn't washed his hands after going to the bathroom.
The thought of beavers sends my mind back to one particularly gorgeous calm evening on our camping trip. As I stood and watched the still water and the ominous dark clouds brewing in the distant sky, a slow yet steady movement of the water caught my eye. On closer inspection of the water, I noticed that there was beaver casually swimming by our campsite. I called the children over to see the beaver and we all enjoyed a truly Canadian moment in the wilderness. At the time, standing with my wide-eyed and awestruck children, I thought “what a beautiful beaver!” Now, sitting buckled over on the toilet, bearing down as I brace for another wave of stomach cramps just before generating another explosion from my back end, I think “that %$@# beaver!”
It was time to go to the doctor.
The doctor agrees that Giardia is a likely cause of my suffering. Handing me several containers he explains that I have to fill these vials with stool samples (that’s doctor speak for filling the vials with crap). He explains that I have to trap the crap into a container and bring it to the lab for testing. Back at home I read the instructions for collecting the samples of crap. Apparently, crapping into a container without contaminating the sample by urine requires some nimble maneuvering and maybe even a bit of practice. I’m quite dexterous though and so I'm able to get the job done on the first go. It felt odd, but it had to be done. Now it was time to deliver the samples to the lab. I soldiered on.
I arrive at the lab and approach the receptionist. The waiting room is filled with people looking sick and bored. I hand the receptionist the doctor’s form together with the two bottles of crap hidden in an envelope. I try to be inconspicuous because it really feels weird when you’re handing some stranger two vials full of your crap. Without a moment of hesitation, the receptionist opens the envelope, pulls the samples out and holds them up to the light as if she was trying to read a letter through an envelope! The samples are in a clear bottle and are now in full view of the people in the waiting room. “Yes, that’s my crap,” I think to myself as I scan the room. “Wonderful. Please advertise my samples to the whole world!” What can she possibly divine from a public inspection of my samples?!? I'm guessing she was trying to read the label. After what felt like an eon, she accepts the samples, places them back in the envelope and informs me that the doctor will be notified with the results in two or three days. The job is done. I retreat.
The phone call comes about three days later; the lab has confirmed that there was Giardia in my samples. The doctor prescribes Metronidazole (250mg), which is a standard treatment for Giardia. As the pharmacist hands me the bottle of white pills he rattles off a seemingly endless list of possible side effects. I listen as he mentions “metallic taste in your mouth,” “vomiting” and “diarrhea” and then I zone out. Seriously? A metallic taste in your mouth? It sounds like the side effects of the drug are worse than Giardia! I tune back in as the pharmacist mentions that absolutely no alcohol can be consumed while I take this drug. Evidently, even the alcohol in mouthwash can make you violently ill while on this drug. Nice! This drug is like napalm for your body. Apparently, in addition to its use as a treatment of Giardia, it is also used to treat severe uterine infections. At least I don't have to worry about those.
As of this writing I’m three days into taking the meds and so far so good. The side effects aren't nearly as bad as I expected. Here’s hoping I'm back to normal soon! Right now, though, I'm still carrying a memento of my dear Canadian friend -- the beaver! As someone who has 'bin there and done that' I humbly offer this advice: Don't take any crap from a beaver!