Water, Birds and Bugs

Glacier National Park

When walking or skiing near fast flowing water, you can sometimes hear the jik-jik call note of the American Dipper. It's a slate grey, robin-sized bird that resides year round in many of the streams in and around Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks. John Muir described their song as "the music of the streams refined and spiritualized." Their post-feeding song is heard much less often than their call note, but is worth seeking out. Mountain streams are especially pleasant places on a hot afternoon.

While waiting for Dippers to sing (it could take a while), they might entertain you with territorial antics as they defend prime stretches of creek habitat or with close formation courtship flights.

Dippers get their name from their most conspicuous habit, a repetitive up-and-down bobbing motion, which is thought to help them locate prey from their position on a stream-side rock. They feed by plunging into streams fast-flowing streams in search of aquatic insects like caddisfly and stonefly, and to a lesser extent fish eggs. These Dipper delicacies only occur in pollution free, well oxygenated waters. The presence of Dippers is a quick and reliable indicator of  a healthy aquatic ecosystem.

However, water good enough for Dippers isn't necessarily good enough for people to drink. The cleanest mountain stream can still harbour many kinds of micro-organisms (Giardia, Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium among others) that can effect human health. These are dealt with in municipal water treatment systems that cost millions of dollars, but far-flung park facilities need a different approach.

Illecillewaet River The Illecillewaet River and its tributaries are excellent dipper habitat.
© Parks Canada

At the Illecillewaet Campground we've adapted a small-scale filtration treatment system that meets federal drinking water standards and keeps the use of chlorine to a minimum. Filtration is what works best on large cysted pathogens such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium. Chlorine is only needed in trace amounts to protect our distribution lines from viruses or bacteria. Less chlorine means septic tank bacteria can digest wastes better and we want to keep chlorine out of the park streams we are meant to protect.

Backcountry users can't rely on water treatment facilities. Fortunately, hiking trails in the parks are almost always upstream of human sources of water-borne contaminants. But parasites such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium can also be carried by wildlife, so it's possible that, at times, any backcountry stream could be contaminated. The spring melt is when we are likely to find high coliform counts in the water as there is a natural flushing of water through the soil.

The Columbia Mountains have some advantages in terms of backcountry water quality. We do not have large concentrations of wildlife. We have few backcountry areas heavily used by people. And we have great dilution due to our ample annual precipitation. Park water quality tests results before treatment in our facilities are good most of the time.

Though there are many strains of Giardia, only some can cause human health problems and among people there's a range of susceptibility to these organisms. To some extent our bodies adapt to the local fauna of our water. Often it's visitors that experience intestinal discomfort from drinking water.

While there is some risk, albeit small, to drinking wild waters, there are certainly problems if you don't drink enough while exerting yourself in warm weather. Dehydration will lead to headaches, cramps, or heat stroke.

If you are concerned about drinking water from backcountry streams, here's what you can do to improve your odds. Start out with water from home - by the time you finish it, you'll be beyond most sources of contamination. When filling up from a creek, avoid particulate matter. Prefer high elevation water sources such as a snowfields or glaciers. Some glacial waters have fine rock particles and are best left to settle overnight. If you want more security, then boil your water or purchase chlorine tables, iodine crystals, or a pump filter.

We can all help backcountry water quality by disposing of human wastes and tissues in a shallow hole at least a 100 meters from any water source. When camping in a group away from facilities, it is better to dig one adequate latrine than create many random holes. Cover the hole with dirt before leaving. Where fires are permitted, used toilet paper can be saved in a bag later burned.

So the next time you're waiting for the dippers to sing consider what could be happening upstream before taking a sip of the water.

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