I wrote this about my hike to Maxwell Lake near the Lostine River in eastern Oregon, where our family often camps. Enjoy.
East over Oregon's rugged Cascade Mountains, down into a dry land as much brown as green, through the windy gorge of the great Columbia, and finally into the hills of the Wallowas. Here, at a wooden footbridge over a shallow, winding and frigged river they call the Lostine we begin our hike.
Four miles lay before us. Not a long hike; about three and half hours if we keep good pace. But every mile will be well fought for. The trail is steep and wild; only half-tamed by works of man. A short, easy hike to a rocky crossing of the river sets our pace. Across it, a field of tall grass and bright flowers awaits. We cautiously cross the river, with more than one of us soaking our feet as we slip on the slick rocks.
Onto the real trail we then begin. It is steeper now; thinner. The forest encloses us, and occasional sharp, rocky drops on our right warn us of misstepping. We come to the first switchback, a place where the trail turns around and sharply inclines, taking us above ground previously covered. There will be eight of these before the top. A short rest, a sip of water, and then we continue.
Legs weary; breathing becomes a fight. Jagged, salt and pepper speckled granite pebbles crush methodically underneath our boot-laden feet, orchestrating the unconscious rhythm to which we hike. Larger, less weathered stones often jut from the trail, only aggravating our already burning thighs. A hike more like a rock climb, we often think.
But then, out of the shadows of hallways of pine suddenly blossoms a field of luscious green. The violets, reds and deep blues of various flowers stand scattered about the refreshing meadow, laid out in a pattern known only to their maker. Soft dirt replaces hard stone beneath our feet. Cackling chirps of untamed birds sound out from above. We're still far from through, but softer scenery gives us some reprieve.
We reach the final switchback an hour later. But victory seems small against the path ahead. Now, the path inclines sharper than it ever has before. The trail becomes like a trench at some points; a rocky creek at others. We are led through lively, colorful fields at the foot of powerful rocky mountains. Birds sing and fly above us. But we hardly notice. The trail fools us with crests that seem to mark the end, but once reached only reveal even more obstacles ahead.
Another ridge is reached. But then a bend. And suddenly, unexpectedly, a valley lays before us. A splash of blue lays on its far side. A lake; our destination. Steep cliffs of white stone rise threateningly around the isolated pool, as if guarding its serenity. A sudden decline in the trail raises our spirits and reinvigorates our legs. A thin dirt trail leads us down through fields of green and along, over and beside thin, rapid streams.
The blue looks more green now as the lake draws near. A rocky outcrop must be traversed before we can reach the lake's shore. Coming over the rocks, we arrive at a trail leading around the lake. Thin, reddish-brown forms dart in the water below—brook trout as far as we can tell.
A patch of grass flanked by a vast field of tall, stacked stone on one side and a crop of pines on the other, is where we finally sit down to rest. Plump, honey-striped bees hop from blossom to blossom around our feet. Large horse flies buzz annoyingly around our heads; mosquitoes stab lustily into our flesh. The tangy aroma of bug spray soon taints the sweet mountain air. A cool breeze ripples the opal lake, gently shifts through the trees, and tingles our skin as it wraps around our weary bodies. A subtle “plop” disturbs the calm, yet seems not out of place. We glance at the sound's origin, seeing only a pulsating ring of water. Another near it, this time preceded by a flash of silver, confirms our hopes: the fish are hungry.
As we fish, eat and rest bare-footed upon large stones, gray clouds emerge over the steep rocks around us. Light rain dampens the land, but we do not seek cover. The air is cool, but that's just fine. The fish are biting, and our cares couldn't be farther.