Water, water everywhere….

April 27, 2010

I was thinking about this Coleridge quote the other day, after my friend Tod Schimelpfenig from NOLS let me know about a recent “near miss” involving a solo hiker in New Mexico. The whole story is reported in an article in the Silver City Sun News (http://www.scsun-news.com/ci_13848541).

Basically, this is the tale of a chap who nearly lost his life because of bad information from the outdoor education industry. He became lost, and subsequently seriously dehydrated, ultimately requiring a search and rescue operation. The irony of the story is that he was lost while hiking around a river. How, you may ask, can one become “dehydrated” near a river? His trusty water filter wasn’t working properly, and he was unable to boil sufficient water to obtain enough to drink. Of course, he could have just stuck his face in the river and gulped down several mouths-full, but apparently he was afraid of contracting some horrible disease by doing so! This poor guy had been so indoctrinated by the spurious teachings regarding wilderness water safety that he allowed himself to become dehydrated while surrounded by fresh water!

Anyone who has followed my writings on this subject should know my take on the “contaminated water” nonsense. There has never been one iota of real data suggesting that North American wilderness waters are unsafe for consumption. Most of this hysteria has come from a mid-seventies incident in Utah, which modern information suggests was most likely an illness within a camping group spread by poor personal hygiene. Well-documented reports of individual hikers contracting illness by consuming backcountry water are nonexistent, and most experts today are recognizing the vastly more important role of group hygiene in preventing intestinal illness. The “publications” link on my website will take you both to some technical and some lay articles discussing this in more detail.

Why is the tale of Mr. Mason’s near-fatal hike important? It provides an answer to the occasional wilderness educator who agrees that the risk of drinking untreated water is trivial, but still opines that advocating universal treatment “can’t hurt”. Well, it sure can if the message taken home by folks like Mr. Mason is that there is still a chance of danger!

Finally, there is another curious item in the article describing this incident. Apparently, some undoubtedly well-meaning rescuers provided Mr. Mason with some intravenous fluid for his dehydration. This, no doubt, will bring a smile to the faces of the “wilderness first responder” education industry. Indeed–this poor guy would have perished without the advanced medical know-how with which he was provided at the scene! Hold your applause. Short of unconsciousness or severe vomiting, dehydration can be treated quite adequately (perhaps even more safely) with oral fluids. The World Health Organization has shown dramatically that oral salt and water can revive near-moribund victims of dehydration. The treatment Mr. Mason needed was nothing more complicated than good, clear river water, supplemented by some salty snacks! The outdoor education/wilderness medicine industry may have gotten this poor guy into this mess, and could have complicated getting him out.