Living Alaska: A fear of Alaska’s high giardia rate
My fear of giardia has probably reached an irrational level.
A couple weeks ago, a beaver swam right next to my kayak as I paddled around Little Campbell Lake in West Anchorage. All of two seconds passed before my inner hypochondriac came bursting to the surface. I thought about all of things that could have been in the water that had splashed onto me from my paddle. It wasn’t a pretty picture.
Then I saw another beaver at University Lake and then another later at Sand Lake. The same images reappeard at the sight of more beavers.
Beavers are a common carrier of the disease, so it’s not surprising that giardia’s nickname is beaver fever. Regardless of what you call it, it is always a disease caused by a microscopic parasite that lives in intestines and is passed through feces. Beavers are not the only creature affected by it. Dogs, cats, cattle, deer and humans can, too.
Giardia also has crippling symptoms — including dehydration, nausea, cramping and diarrhea. Lately, I’ve heard giardia stories from outdoorsmen as often as I hear fishing stories and each is told with near-bragging levels of enthusiasm.
“Taking a big ol’ Kodiak brown bear was a lot less exhausting and traumatic, than being sicker than a damn dog with giardia,” Jeff Carter said with a chuckle. “I’m kidding, mostly.”
I met Jeff a few months ago at Connors Bog Dog Park. He’s the owner of a middle-aged Bernese mountain dog named Charlotte, who’s become quite smitten with my dog Brodie.
I usually see Jeff on a stump at the park’s lake. He’s in his early-60s and has lived in Alaska for more than half of his life. In his own words, he’s a “good ol’ fashioned mountain man, who’s been through all the nasty crap any outdoorsman has.”
He shares stories like most old men do; with a devilish, boyish grin and a chuckle. Jeff began to suffer from the symptoms of giardia after hiking the Stampede Trail just north of Healy. It was 1997 and John Krakauer’s “Into the Wild” — the story of Christopher McCandless — had just been published the year before.
McCandless, an ill-prepared California man, lost his life on an Alaska adventure in the Interior in the early-1990s. McCandless’ story became famous with the publication of Krakauer’s book — the accuracy of which has since been debated.
“My son was one of those who kind of romanticized what McCandless did, he begged me to go on the hike with him. He was in his second year of college and I think was just at the point… Like he was confused about what direction to follow. So, we went. He said he was going anyway,” he explained.
The Stampede Trail is 40 miles roundtrip, and includes crossing the Teklanika River. When Jeff and his son were crossing the river, he said, they had their arms linked, but his son lost his footing and partially fell into the water.
“Besides for freezing his buns and soaking his clothes, he got a big mouthful of water and some splashed onto my face when I was helping him up. I didn’t think too much about it. It was just real cold. Boy, was I mistaken.
“I’ve never been more miserable. I’m not sure how many days my boy lived on the bathroom floor. He figured out that life in the outdoors is a lot harsher and less romantic than books or movies, or whatever,” Jeff said.
He said it took them a couple of weeks before they were back to normal.
“Damn McCandless. If it wasn’t for him, I never would have hiked that trail, and I never would have gotten giardia and I never would have gotten so sick. But hey, I survived.”
It’s those kinds of stories that fuel my fear of giardia, except I spared you the dirty little details that make me nauseous to write.
My fear is somewhat justified, though. According to the latest data provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Alaska has the third-highest rates of giardia per capita in the U.S. Here, giardia cases are reported at 13.1 percent. In the two states with worse giardia rates — Vermont and South Dakota — the rates are much higher at 29.2 and 17.3 percent, respectively.
On average, Alaska sees 80 to 100 cases annually, according to Alaska Department of Health and Social Services spokesperson Rebecca Luczyck. There is no data for 2016, but last year 90 cases were reported, she said.
However, those numbers aren’t an exact reflection of giardia cases. She said there are instances when a health care professional treats someone for something else that has similar symptoms and the data does not reflect that.
According to Luczyck, DHSS is not advising people to avoid any specific bodies of water due to the risk of contracting giardia.
So like most things in Alaska’s outdoors, proceed with caution — because even our urban lakes are swimming with unpleasant surprises.
Megan Edge is a lifelong Alaskan residing in West Anchorage. The views expressed here are not necessarily the views of KTVA. “Living Alaska” is a regular feature, appearing on KTVA.com, about experiencing the Last Frontier through the outdoors.
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