I meet “Maxine” on the third of six switchbacks leading to Maxwell Lake in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, Oregon’s largest.
Retired seven years ago, Maxine selects one day each summer to hike the four-mile trail and has chosen this day because it is cool and less smoky from wildfires.
“I’ve been doing this every year for 50 years,” says the Wallowa County resident. “It’s proof I’m still alive — and can do something extraordinary.”
Maxine says the trail, best hiked in June through September, has six long switchbacks in the first three miles.
The last mile goes “straight up,” she says, and can be especially difficult in June and July while snow lingers.
When I hike the trail, in early August, I encounter only a few hikers, dust, squirrels, ravens, gray jays and great views.
Early in the hike, at the 0.2-mile mark, the trail crosses a lively series of waterfalls called Maxwell Creek. Hikers cross on well-placed small logs, but when snowmelt reaches its peak the crossing can be dicey.
Later in the season they can boulder hop. A hiking pole or two helps with balance.
I grind on past granite outcroppings sparkly in sunlight interspersed with shaded forest.
Soon, I meet a party that includes a chihuahua wearing booties to protect its tender feet. I bend down to say hello. The chihauhua takes one look at me, thinks Sasquatch, tucks tail and runs away.
As I continue up the 2,450 feet in elevation gain, I am feeling sorry for myself lugging a daypack containing three bottles of water, medical supplies, snacks, a space blanket, essentially everything but the kitchen sink.
Then I meet someone even more loaded down. A woman carries a baby strapped on front and a pack on back.
The baby is crying, perhaps because Mom has yet to loan her a credit card to buy unlimited outdoor gear.
Finally, I reach the end of the graded switchbacks and begin the last mile — the “straight up” stretch.
A hiking pole helps with balance as I claw up to a pass at 7,790 feet elevation.
When at last I descend to the lake, at 7,749 feet, backdropped by alpine splendor, I am enthralled at its clearness.
Even in midday, small brook trout occasionally jump.
Diamonds sparkle on the tranquil water.
Several campsites are set back from the north shore. Be aware, though: The area can be buggy, especially evenings, so if camping overnight bring insect repellent.
I sit on a granite boulder and enjoy lunch, then snap pictures before heading down the mountain.
The trail is steep and slippery, earning a moderate difficulty rating in the book “Hiking Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness.”
I slip-slide down, halting occasionally to admire the panoramic views and to give my aching toes a break.
Finally, after requiring about 3.5 hours to climb to the lake and 3 to slide back down, I limp across the bridge over the Lostine River and back to the car.
Then again, I’m an older hiker who rates low on the Spry Scale. You might be quicker.
The drive back to pavement and Lostine, Ore., also earns a “moderate difficulty” rating. Washboard and bumps require a rig with high clearance, or a driver skilled at dodging the worst obstacles.
I drive a Prius with the clearance of a slug and meet another dodging and darting up as I dodge and dart down.
Along the way I see signs for several trailheads — Frances Lake and others — which sparks thoughts of future adventures in “the Alps of Oregon.”
But first I’ll let my toes recover.