My final morning on trail, I sat in my tent with the bug screen and rain fly open. Nausea and stomach pains roiled in my gut, and I was trying to make a decision about whether to continue west on the trail, or head back east to the safety of a cheap bunkhouse at Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters.
As I sat there, a pack of wolves started howling very close by. I looked west at the low ridges along Howard Lake and felt sure the wolves were just on the other side. I’d never heard wolves howling so close before.
After deciding to head back east, my fatigue and weakness were bad enough that I really hoped those wolves didn’t decide to come hunt in my direction. With my physical condition weakened, I felt even more vulnerable than usual to the carnivores of the Northwoods. I’ve never harbored any fantasy that I could fight off a pack of wolves. I’ve always counted on their avoidance of humans. My most genius plan, and I always knew it was more a fantasy than a realistic survival strategy, was constantly scanning the woods for climbable trees.
I haven’t climbed a tree since I was a kid. After puberty, my upper body strength evaporated and now I can barely do five push ups.
As I hiked that final morning, waves of nausea and dizziness washed over me, and I felt a deep empathy for the sick and aging prey of the forest. How terrifying it must be for a deer to have Chronic Wasting Disease, and feel their ability to run and defend themselves also waste away.
Every experience in the woods, even the ones that involve explosive diarrhea, can teach you something new.
Weeks after retreating home to my mother’s house in the Twin Cities, I finally found out why I was sick: giardiasis, a.k.a. beaver fever. “Giardia is a microscopic parasite that causes the diarrheal illness,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “(…)While the parasite can be spread in different ways, water (drinking water and recreational water) is the most common mode of transmission.”
The CDC lists a few common ways to get giardia: backpackers who drink untreated water, making contact with animals who have the disease, making contact with people who have the disease, and more.
If ever diagnosed with giardia, you may get a call from your state’s Department of Health, as I did. That’s how I learned it’s possible to get giardia from swimming or wading through contaminated water sources as well. Due to cold temperatures setting in at the end of August, I hadn’t been doing much swimming, but I was still doing lots of wading through flooded areas. The Arrowhead in Minnesota got a lot of rain in September, and beavers are always hard at work.
Symptoms of giardiasis usually present 1-3 weeks after infection. The Minnesota Department of Health had me list my previous three weeks of waters sources. It was a long conversation involving maps and guides, as I’d filtered water at least 2-3 times a day from backcountry sources.
I’m not sure how I got beaver fever.
I was very careful when I filtered to avoid getting “dirty” water in my clean water bottles, but accidents happen. When temperatures started to get near freezing at night, I’d put my water filter in a plastic bag and tuck it at the bottom of my sleeping bag to prevent it from freezing, but maybe I forgot one night.
I also hiked with someone during that period who believed they had giardia and took medication just before hiking with me. It’s possible I got it from people-to-people contact. I’ve decided during future long-distance trips, I will avoid hiking with anyone who is currently sick or has been sick recently.
Here’s what I can tell you about giardia: IT SUCKS. Big time. It sucks so bad that if I ever get to do a long-distance or long-term outdoor adventure again, I will make sure the medication (tinidazole) for this parasite is in my medical kit before I leave. I had a surprisingly difficult time finding a pharmacy that had tinidazole in stock, likely due to the fact that this disease isn’t very common anymore in America.
The CDC says some people don’t experience symptoms. Lucky dogs. Here are the symptoms I experienced:
I’m being dramatic now, but I swear I could feel these little bugs inside my gut. I felt like aliens had taken over my digestive system, and broken it.
Getting treated for this illness was its own challenge. The first test my doctor performed for the parasite came back negative. Apparently, this is normal. Multiple tests over multiple days must be done. It was my second test that came back positive, and finally got me the medication I needed. My health insurance didn’t cover tinidazole, and I had to wait 10 days for a special approval.
On the Appalachian Trail, thru hikers seem to expect a bout or two of norovirus. Somewhere in all of my backpacking research, I’d gotten the impression that giardia wasn’t much worse than norovirus, which usually lasts 1-2 days. I was really wrong. Not only can giardiasis symptoms last 2-6 weeks, without treatment, symptoms can come back, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Beaver fever may sound funny, but it sure doesn’t feel fun. I feel bad for any beavers out there with giardia who are trying to build a dams or chew down a poplar tree. They’re having a rough day, I can tell you.