By Sarah Stebbins
Photographed by Danielle Sykes
From our November 2021 issue
On the afternoon that Margaret Mathis began a four-day trek to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu, in Peru, with her son and his family, their guide brought along an extra horse. “He’d never had anyone my age take that hike, and he thought I’d need the horse,” says Mathis, who lives in Bridgton and was 84 at the time. As a courtesy, she rode partway up the mountain before pawning the animal off on her daughter-in-law. On the way down, she refused to ride. “It was uncomfortable, and I did not trust the horse,” she says.
The 93-year-old Mathis is used to being offered a well-intentioned leg up. On a recent excursion with the Denmark Mountain Hikers, a local group she hikes with most weeks, she let a would-be helper carry her pack. “She didn’t have one, and I didn’t want to fight with her,” Mathis says. But she didn’t really need the assist. “I know how to be safe on a hike, and I’ve never been hurt,” she says. “I save that for skiing.” (She broke her knee downhill skiing in Switzerland and two bones in her leg at Bridgton’s Shawnee Peak.)
Mathis’s love of athletic pursuits began at her all-girls high school, in St. Louis, where she played field hockey and basketball and swam competitively with a club. Swimming and crew were her sports at Wellesley College, in Massachusetts, where “there was no limit to what women could do,” she says. During her 42-year career teaching math and science at private schools in Switzerland and the U.S., including at Wiscasset’s Chewonki, she led students on dozens of hiking and skiing trips and developed a case of wanderlust that continued into her retirement, at 83. In the last 30 years, she’s traveled to Antarctica, Australia, Belize, Costa Rica, Japan, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe, among other far-flung spots, often with a grandchild in tow.
Most days, Mathis rides for 30 minutes on her Peloton stationary bike — a birthday gift from her four children, who didn’t want her heading out on her road bike anymore. “I sort of agree with them,” she concedes. She also hikes once a week at Pleasant Mountain, near her home, and meets up with the Denmark Mountain Hikers on Fridays for two- to five-mile treks, a regimen she keeps up even in winter. A few years ago, in February, she and the group hiked up Mount Washington’s Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail. On the descent, “we sat on our bottoms and had a great slide all the way down,” she says. “One of the more fun things I ever did.”