BRIDGTON — Margaret Mathis probably exercises more than most people, given that she rides her Peloton stationary bike five times a week. She also joins up with her hiking group every Friday for treks that take an hour or two, and squeezes in another hike, sometimes two, on her own each week. Come winter, the retired teacher does all of that and downhill skis near her Swiss ski chalet in Bridgton.

Not an unusual outdoor lifestyle for many active Mainers, to be sure. But Mathis is 93.

For Mathis – a grandmother to 10 and great-grandmother to four – hiking, swimming, biking and skiing is simply what she does. What she lives for, actually. 

Margaret Mathis’ remarkable fitness carried her in her 80s on a multi-day backcountry trek to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru, snorkeling with sea turtles in the Bahamas and biking the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage rail-trail outside Pittsburgh – which she did from the front of the pack – a year after suffering a compound fracture in her leg. 

The exact recipe for her vibrant, active health in her 80s and early 90s (and counting) is hard to pin down.

When asked, Mathis points to a childhood spent as a competitive long-distance swimmer in St. Louis – or perhaps the years spent participating in and then leading the outing club at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

But, these strenuous, outdoor pursuits were back in the 1940s, more than 70 years ago.  

“She was athletic when she was young. She was a competitive swimmer and has great stories of competing in swim meets during World War II,” said her son, Sandy McKee, in Pittsburgh. “But I attribute (her active life) a lot to genetics. And I hope that I’ve got the majority of those genes.”

What is clear is that in the decades after college and just as Mathis was nearly done raising her four children in Texas, she began teaching high school math and soon after embraced a life of world travel and outdoor adventure, and never let go.

Margaret Mathis climbs over a fallen tree on a trail near her home in Bridgton during a short hike earlier this month. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Allen Crabtree co-founded the local hiking group that Mathis belongs to – the Denmark Mountain Hikers. He said the year-round hiking group is made up mostly of retired Mainers in their 60s or 70s, with some in their 80s. But Mathis is an outlier at 93.

“She’s a trooper. On that first hike (at age 83) she was right there. Now she is our oldest hiker,” Crabtree said. 

In 1970, Mathis began teaching math at a boarding school in San Antonio, and after she was divorced, she did so in St. Louis, her hometown. Eventually she found her way to Maine, where she taught at Chewonki – which offered the outdoor-educational curriculum that spoke to her. During this time, she was invited to teach at a boarding school in Switzerland.

Mathis jumped.

She taught at two different boarding schools there – one within sight of the Matterhorn – for most of 22 years, hiking or downhill skiing nearly ever day. She retired in 2012 at age 83. 

On school breaks and after she retired, Mathis traveled – among other places – to Pakistan, Japan, China, New Zealand, Australia, Belize, Nepal, Zimbabwe and South Africa, where she helped band penguins on an island. Sometimes she visited family or former students, or brought her grandchildren on adventures. Sometimes she went alone.

“People say in their 60s that they’re getting old. But I started doing a lot of these things in my 60s, teaching, and traveling,” Mathis said.

Margaret Mathis stands outside her Swiss chalet-style home in Bridgton. Mathis, 93, has traveled all over the world in search of outdoor adventures, and plans to go snorkeling in the Florida Keys this winter. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Today at her home at the base of Pleasant Mountain, a Swiss flag hangs out front. In the finished basement near the fireplace are a dozen or more large photos of the students she taught in Switzerland for more than 20 years. 

“I try to bring home something from every place I’ve been,” she said, pointing to a wood-carved giraffe from Africa and clay sculpture from Nepal. 

In the last year Mathis taught, she joined the Denmark Mountain Hikers while home in Maine. Her adventures weren’t done. To this day, she has remained a regular with the group – as well as an inspiration.

“She sets the pace and she follows that pace,” Crabtree said. “And she still skis. Every now and then I run across her over at Shawnee Peak. I remember the last time I skied with her, I went with her on the chairlift and she said, ‘I’ll take the lead.’ She was out of sight before I got off the lift.”

Crabtree isn’t certain what Mathis’ secret to a youthful life is. But he alluded to one thing Mathis has in her favor: A family – children and grandchildren – who hike, bike, and travel with her, and do not impede her sense of adventure.

“It seems a common theme (for many): The family doesn’t recognize that their parents are not ready to throw in the towel. They don’t see that. Sometimes, they are overprotective,” said Crabtree, who is 80 and hikes often. “Any time you give up an outdoor activity and settle in and watch TV, that’s not a good recipe for longevity.”

Margaret Mathis, 93, of Bridgton walks through the forest near her home. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Sandy McKee, for one, does not subscribe to that philosophy and wholeheartedly approves of his mom’s outdoor wanderings.

When Mathis was in her early 80s, she went on a hike to Machu Picchu in Peru with Sandy and his wife, Leslie, and their two children – hiking and camping on the four-day journey. Mathis hiked in the front and Sandy McKee and his wife, Leslie, hiked in the rear and, as they went, met many new-found “Margaret fans,” as Sandy calls them.

“The people hiking the other way would look at us and point to her and say, “How old is she? We don’t see many people that age out here.’ It was quite amusing,” McKee said. “And 10 years later – she’s still doing it. It’s wonderful. It’s exceptional. It’s unusual.

“I know she’s good about knowing her limits. What is hard is that she knows her limits and other people put limits on her. That won’t come from me. I am a big believer in the theory that you throttle these older people – and then it’s no fun. She’s still got a to-do list of the places she wants to travel to next.”

Mathis said that because of  the pandemic, she isn’t inclined to fly internationally anytime soon. But she does have a snorkeling trip planned for next winter in Florida.

“My daughter and I plan to go snorkeling in the Florida Keys,” Mathis said of her daughter, Peggy McKee, in Bangor. “Because we both love to swim and snorkel, and I’ve never been that far south in Florida.”

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