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On an expedition cruise to the ruggedly beautiful Arctic, one traveler discovers her inner outdoor adventurer.

Colu Henry traveled on Lindblad Expeditions’ Hot Springs and Icebergs: Iceland to West Greenland tour as part of AFAR’s partnership with the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA), whose members provide travelers with unparalleled access, insider knowledge, and peace of mind to destinations across the globe. For more on her journey, visit the USTOA blog.

I’m admittedly a rosé in hand, market shopping in the south of France kind of girl when it comes to travel. In fact, I never owned a pair of hiking boots until this past summer when I was offered the opportunity to explore Greenland by boat. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve certainly taken long walks in the Hudson Valley where I live, but when it comes to planning a vacation, an outdoorsy adventure doesn’t generally come to mind. My girlfriends laughed at me as I hunted for waterproof pants, thick woolen socks, and a suitable backpack (my first since tromping through Europe in college). I was headed to the Arctic on an expedition—not a floral-printed dress or market basket in sight—and I was indeed going out of my comfort zone.

Greenland is closer than you think, only a two-hour, stupendous plane ride from Reykjavík, Iceland. We arrived in Kangerlussuaq and took a barely running school bus to the harbor. There, we were transported by Zodiac to the National Geographic Explorer, which we would call home for the next four days. The ship is a beautifully appointed, converted Nordic ferryboat; unlike other cruises, this one comes staffed with naturalists, undersea specialists, geologists, and photographers, all there to educate you. Not my usual roll call. 

Homes in Sisimiut, Greenland
Each day, our expedition leader, Russ Evans, provided a 7 a.m. wake-up call over the loudspeaker to provide us with our daily itinerary. Instead of my typical vacation routine of drinking coffee in bed and planning what to cook for lunch, I pulled on my new ski pants, layered smartly, laced up my boots, and was out the door. My fate rested in the hands of the capable crew and, much to my surprise, I fell into this new pattern in no time at all.

My days were filled with photography walks through Sisimiut, where we saw bright, jewel-toned houses, narwhal tusks, and wild-looking, wolflike sled dogs. We took boat rides through icy waters to the mouth of the Iluslissat Fjord where I felt smaller and more awe of the Earth than I ever had before. Icebergs are indeed magical. Humpback whales were feeding in the distance and their graceful dips and dives as they came up for air took my own breath away and moved me to tears. Caitlyn Webster, the ship’s charismatic undersea diving specialist, told me about their migration patterns from the Dominican Republic all the way up to Greenland each year. She also told me about how they are the only animals to protect other species from killer whales, which are actually not whales at all—they’re dolphins. In an everyday scenario, I would have sat timidly in the narrow wooden boat, but this time, I crawled to the small bow, camera in hand to try to capture them. 

We also visited Sermermiut, which is home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is possibly one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen: Alongside the mouth of the Illulissat Icefjord, a wooden walkway leads you to a jaw-droppingly beautiful and massive glacier, Sermeq Kujalleq. It’s the world’s fastest moving glacier and deposits (or “calves”) icebergs in the bay that can reach the size of multiple, large Manhattan buildings. The current was so still the day of our visit that the glacier barely moved, creating a floorlike landscape of ragged ice that almost seemed like one could walk upon it. 

For our final excursion, I chose to participate in a long tundra walk in a part of Greenland that not even the boat crew of specialists had explored. Our leader was Jenny Kingsley, a journalist who runs a program called Meet the North, which tells cultural stories of people in the Arctic, one conversation at a time. We hiked over spongy terrain the color of rust and gold. After just a few days in the Arctic, I was able to identify lichen, dwarf birch, and moss around us. Kingsley pointed out blueberries that grew so close to the ground they were almost invisible and then handed me a palmful to try; they were small and tart and tasted of the earth. Jenny also pointed out Labrador tea (also known as Greenland moss), which looks like tiny floral canoes. When you crush them between your fingers, they smell like wild lavender. The Inuits use them to make tea to fight colds and other ailments. We even spotted an Arctic fox. Never in my life had I wanted to own a pair of binoculars; now, they felt like the most crucial travel accessory.

The last night of our trip, the weather brought stormy seas that wildly rocked the boat for hours. As dinner went on, guests began to vanish from the dining room, heading to their rooms for refuge. By the time I was through, the dining room was almost vacant, but I was decidedly fine. I headed up to the bridge (which had a 24-hour open-door viewing policy) to watch the storm in action. I hollered at the waves and the wind and begged them for more, and the few passengers left standing looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. As I went to bed, and the swaying room lulled me to sleep, I realized that perhaps this girl liked an adventure after all. 

I’m not sure where my next trip will take me, but I do know I’ll be packing those hiking boots and bringing my newfound, risk-taking self along for the ride. She fits nicely.

>>Next: This Off-the-Grid Greenland Getaway Will Steal Your Heart