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Elaine Schwartz paddles a kayak in Antarctica. (Credit: Courtesy photo)

Elaine Schwartz sits in her apartment at Peconic Landing in Greenport surrounded by enlarged photographs she’s taken in countries like Afghanistan and Indonesia, festive masks from Tibet or Colombia and artwork from exotic locales like India. She’s delighted to tell you a story about each and every one of these souvenirs. 

Leaning up against the wall in her bedroom is a nine-foot wooden canoe that she got from a specialty canoe maker in the Adirondacks. At 84 years old and less than 5 feet tall, Ms. Schwartz finds the 12-pound canoe is perfect for her to carry when she needs to, which is actually quite often.

It’s fair to say that she is living her best life in retirement.

She’s always enjoyed being around nature and being on the water, but she wasn’t able to travel much while she was working. For 41 years, Ms. Schwartz was a special education curriculum consultant for schools in Dix Hills and taught in Adelphi University’s graduate program in special education.

Since she retired at age 66, however, she’s visited 81 countries.

A visit for Ms. Schwartz is not a typical vacation. It’s hiking 165 miles on an offbeat trail in Spain, sleeping in a hammock in the Brazilian Amazon or kayaking in Antarctica.

“Exploring and going into the wilderness just gives you a wonderful feeling,” she said.

Since 1972, she’s had a house in the Adirondacks that her late husband, Larry, a civil engineer, built because they enjoyed skiing there.

Ms. Schwartz said she would go up to the house as much as possible and, because each season in the mountains brings different outdoor activities, she soon took became interested in hiking, then in kayaking and canoeing.

“When I retired, I finally had some time and I decided I wanted to travel,” Ms. Schwartz said. “But traveling included hiking. So that’s what I did.”

Schwartz on a trip to central Asia. (Credit: courtesy photo)

She said her “all-time high” trip was when she hiked for 26 days in Nepal, ending up at the base of Kangchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world.

“I felt Everest was over-trekked, so we wanted to go to an isolated area,” she said.

Soon after getting a taste for hiking in unique areas all over the world, she began mixing it up by kayaking and canoeing as well.

Last year, she went kayaking literally at both ends of the globe, in Antarctica in January and the Arctic in August.

“It’s almost a spiritual feeling because you’re kayaking with glaciers behind you,” she said. “It’s a beautiful feeling.”

Kayaking gives you the chance to experience “pristine wilderness,” according to Schwartz, because the small boats can take you places you normally would not be able to get to.

In addition to the Antarctica, she’s also seen places like New Zealand and Alaska from a kayak. And she’s received a paddling pursuit patch from the Adirondack Mountain Club, earned for paddling at least 48 different waterways in the Adirondack State Park area.

While Schwartz also likes to visit typical tourist attractions, she usually travels with the purpose of exploring a trail or waterway in that area — some well-known like Mount Kilimanjaro and others more isolated. She said she enjoys learning about different cultures in more remote regions.

“It’s fine to see the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, but hiking in the Black Sea area is really special,” she said.

Schwartz at home at Peconic Landing. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

Schwartz needs to stay healthy and physically strong for these trips and exercise is something that’s always been important to her. Before moving to Peconic Landing about a year ago, she belonged to a gym where she participated in classes regularly.

Now she takes advantage of the swimming pool and yoga classes at Peconic Landing.

“I think it’s very important to stay active and it’s enabled me to do the kind of hiking I’ve done,” she said.

Schwartz’s daughter Margie said her mother has created a whole new life for herself since retirement. They’ve gone on trips together, including one to celebrate her 80th birthday, when they hiked for 16 days on the Camino de Santiago trail in Spain. On this trip, like many others, she said, her mother was the group’s oldest participant.

“People are always shocked,” Margie said. “She’s physically able to do a lot of things people can’t do at her age.”

Schwartz has made friends by traveling with organized groups like Wilderness Travel, and planned independent trips with them later on. Margie said many people are inspired by her mother and the things she has accomplished.

She said she thinks traveling more as you get older is beneficial in many ways, although not everyone has to do it to the extent her mother does.

“As you’re in retirement and into old age, I think for a lot of people it gives them a sense of purpose and connection and they’re really happy,” Margie said. “That’s just going to help you live longer.”

Schwartz said she would encourage anyone to try traveling in an unconventional way.

“I think it gives you a different insight into those places and it’s a way of combining an interest in seeing things with activity and exploring,” she said. “It’s been fun.”