Be Safe

Clean water: a must.

by Scott Sadil

A friend of mine guiding this summer in Alaska just reported that he’s come down with a case of giardiasis – a reminder to the rest of us who spend time on the water that care and caution should be a part of everyone’s fishing routine.

If you’re as old as I am, you can probably remember scoffing at such concerns. A trout stream, almost by definition, meant water safe to drink, whether scooped up in your metal backpacking cup (tin or stainless steel, not titanium) or slurped while lying on your belly in a meadow above treeline.  

Even after friends smarter than I am began to warn of giardia, patiently explaining that, yes, it’s everywhere and, no, you don’t want to get it, I would find myself in situations where I couldn’t help but tempt fate. Once, while hiking with my wife-to-be, searching for trout in Baja’s Sierra de San Pedro Mártir, I recall drinking from a spring bubbling directly out of the granite, thinking this has to be safe.  Of course, the fact that we had run out of water hours earlier, and we really didn’t know where a stream, much less trout, of any sort might be, made the decision to fill our water bottles, and drink from the spring, sort of a moot point.

The trick now is to be a little more prepared.

For years Joe Kelly and I relied on a SteriPEN, which disinfects small amounts of water with prolonged shots of ultraviolet light.  Science types can investigate the technology and its efficacy.  I’ll just report that Joe and I never ran into any problems, although I should add that we’re usually fishing fairly remote locations, which always make me wonder if the water is safe in the first place.

Gravity-flow water filter, Kisaralik Lake, Alaska

But that’s just the sort of thinking, claims Joe, a science teacher, that will have you running for the bushes, your insides writhing like a wad of suckling puppies. 

This year we switched to a gravity-flow filter system. We had a chance to try it out on a short backpack trip, with one of Joe’s daughters and her boyfriend.  The biggest drawback to the SteriPEN is that you can only treat a single water bottle at a time.  The bag or reservoir for the filter system, on the other hand, holds ten liters and treats more than a liter and a half per minute.

We ended up relying this summer on this new setup for a ten-day, three-man float in Alaska.  Without going into gory details, let me just say that a river crossed constantly by bears, moose, caribou, wolves and whatnot is just the sort of water that can become infested with protozoan parasites that live in fecal matter.  We treated about five gallons of water every other day — plenty to drink, cook with, and to wash hands and dishes, the other important step in the prevention of weird intestinal bugs that can ruin anybody’s fishing trip.

Plus, a surplus of water in camp makes it easier to stay hydrated, another crucial component in maintaining health, especially for those of us who have been in the game awhile.  I could tell you about midnight leg cramps I suffer if I don’t slam the water throughout a day of heavy wading – but I’ll save it for another time.


Gray’s angling editor Scott Sadil wonders if he’ll live long enough for someone to invent a lightweight solar ice cube maker so he can enjoy a genuine gin and tonic on a summer backpack trip.