During a trip down the Lower Rogue River Canyon in fall 2010, fishing guide Dan Stumpff noticed the back of his right hand swelling, then festering with a pussy green ooze.
Staphylococcus bacteria, or staph, apparently slipped into his skin through a small puncture wound on the base of his middle finger, rendering it almost useless.
"It was painful, it was miserable," says Stumpff, 56, of Medford.
And it wasn't isolated.
At different times over a two-month period, three other guides working for Stumpff ended up with staph infections. So did three guides working for a different outfitter along that same stretch of the Rogue at the same time. "It seemed like we all got it," says Jordan Wright of Portland, who works for Stumpff and contracted staph on his thighs, calf and a foot. "The only common link we could think of was the river."
Their ordeal spawned a private, independent study that shows that Bear Creek and other tributaries are pumping varying levels of staphylococcus bacteria into the Rogue, and this data has the potential either to raise serious red flags about bacteria loads in the Rogue or become a public-health red herring.
The state Department of Environmental Quality doesn't test public waterways for staphylococcus, and there are no standards available to judge whether staph levels measured in the study are unsafe or not.
Moreover, the samples were tested only for all strains of staph and not just the one tied to skin infections.
The Rogue water that the guides were exposed to at the time wasn't tested, so their cases are anecdotal and the source unproven, public health officials say.
Besides, 30 percent of people carry the nasty strain of staph in their noses anyway, so they could have infected themselves — or each other.
"If you're a carrier, those are the people who get skin infections," says Dr. Paul Cieslak, manager of the communicable disease section of the Oregon Health Authority. "If they had a lot of contact, they could have passed it between them.
"It's theoretically possible that it came from the river, but the river has a big dilution factor," Cieslak says. "It's more likely to be transmitted in a close setting with family members or co-workers."
Stumpff says he knows the study is no smoking gun, and he doesn't want staph fears to steer people away from the Rogue Valley's signature feature. But he doesn't want the issue to be swept away, either.
"To me, it's a concern," he says. "For us as river-users, obviously, we're in contact with the water more than the normal person. We're out there all the time.
"I'd at least like to get an answer on this," he says.
Staphylococcus is one of unknown numbers of viruses, bacterium, parasites, algae and other microscopic life forms found in public waterways, but their levels go untested in rivers such as the Rogue because they are not considered indicators of bacterial pathogens, says Bill Meyers, the DEQ's Rogue Basin coordinator.
The agency uses E. coli as its indicator bacteria, with the main-stem Rogue and tributary streams such as Bear Creek, Ashland Creek and others containing well-documented levels that at times are considered unhealthy, Meyers says.
But because there are no health or water-quality criteria for any form of staph, measurements can be compared only to each other and not against what might be considered healthy or unhealthy levels.
After learning of the staph infections by Stumpff and others, Grants Pass businessman Dennis Becklin decided to add staph counts to a series of water-quality studies he bankrolled for the Rogue.
Water samples collected in late 2011, early 2012 and again last fall showed varying levels of staph bacteria, with higher levels during low-flow months of September and October, according to the study.
Water flowing out of Lost Creek dam had the lowest levels of staph. Some of the highest concentrations in the Rogue were immediately upstream and for three miles downstream of Medford's water-treatment plant, where staph levels are not tested nor are required to be tested.
Tributary samples also vary widely, the study concludes. Bear Creek's levels vary greatly depending upon when and where the samples were taken. Sardine Creek near Gold Hill had some of the highest staph levels, but even its levels differed dramatically.
"All we know is, it exists," Becklin says. "We don't know what the sources are."
And no one knows what, if anything, these measurements mean.
"There's no standard for staph, so I don't have any point of reference for that," says Curtis Cude, the state's healthy waters program manager. "I don't know if the levels are significant or not. Based on that data, I can't tell if it's a public-health concern or not."
Moreover, the study looked only at generic staph and not just for the staph aureus strain tied to skin infections.
"All you have is potential," Cude says.
Stumpff worries the potential is greatest among the river guiding community, full of rough-and-tumble sorts whose weathered hands and cracked skin come into constant contact with river water and fish slime. They handle fish hooks and wield sharp knives filleting salmon or steelhead on pickup tailgates or on riverside rocks.
"It's a miracle we don't get sick more often," he says.
The public-health mantra for water contact always has been to assume there are pathogens in the water, so curb your exposure and wash well when you're done.
"People have contact with the water at their own risk," Stumpff says. "There's always going to be some sort of risk associated with that. You try to do the best you can to minimize those risks."
Adding more murkiness to the staph question is the fact that physicians are not required to report incidents of skin infections by staph in Oregon. Therefore, there is no way to measure whether those in contact with the Rogue have any higher, or lower, rates of infection than anywhere else.
Cude likens Becklin's staph study to generic measurements of blue-green algae, among which only a handful of strains are potentially dangerous to people. The measurements cast too large a net to draw any public-health conclusions.
"It's hard to say there's a red flag here," Cude says. "It might point to the need for some further studies. It's one of those gray areas."
That's all Stumpff is asking for.
"There are no (staph) standards, but should there be?" Stumpff says. "It's an unanswered question.
"This is my 38th year on the river and this is my first time seeing this," Stumpff says. "I'm not interested in being a whistle-blower or a finger-pointer. I just want to know what the hell's going on."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.