There’s a specific type of anticipation that greets the first night of an expedition. It settles in once the travel worries have faded: once flights land on time and luggage is safely in staterooms, after walking around the ship to find the restaurant (and the bar) and as the port starts to melt into the horizon. It sweeps over everyone, whether it’s the first time experiencing such an itinerary or the fifteenth. It’s easy for the crew to quiet guests on the first night, when the wide-eyed travelers before them wait almost breathlessly to learn what adventure is in store.
Greenland was not our first expedition. We knew what we signed up for: a firm start and end date connected by a proposed itinerary subject to change at any time. What we might sacrifice in control we would gain back in opportunity. If there were something unexpected, unique, or special that crossed our ship’s path we would be nimble enough to welcome it, knowing it could change our schedule with barely a moment’s notice. There are no promises made on an expedition. There are only stories to be written.
We sipped champagne as we listened to our captain welcome us with that observation. Every expedition tells a story, he mused, and each of us had the chance to play an active part in the story our expedition would become. Glancing around the room as he spoke, I wondered how each person came to make Greenland the backdrop for their next chapter. I was sure my reason would pale in comparison; although it had always been high on our list, Adam had an incredible opportunity to travel as an employee of our host, Lindblad Expeditions. Within a day of learning we had the chance to board the National Geographic Endurance and explore the world’s largest island, delivery drivers were dropping off boxes brimming with muck boots, waterproof pants, and wool socks at our doorstep. There was no question we planned to play a very active role in whatever story we would collectively author.
Most days were perfect in their unpredictability. One especially cold morning my dreams were interrupted much earlier than desired by our expedition leader’s voice through our in-room speakers. Russ encouraged us to make our way to the observation deck to see a pod of whales swimming close to the boat. Moments later, still fumbling with my parka’s zipper in a fog I couldn’t quite shake, I shivered with delight as I watched 40 whales scattered around us spouting water into the air before diving below the waves, their flukes disappearing into the darkness. As my senses slowly engaged, I listened to their deep baritone that seemed to echo around us. Later, after coffee lifted what remained of my haze, I marveled at how remarkable a moment that was. To stand shoulder to shoulder with people from around the world and listen in on the conversations of some of the largest mammals on the planet can’t be planned or taken for granted. That moment wasn’t on anyone’s itinerary, yet it may have been one of the best of the trip.
Our moments off the boat were just as unpredictable. Mere hours after spotting the whales we anchored for a few hours, enough time for us to make our way to shore aboard zodiacs to hike along terrain that rarely sees human footprints. Adam and I opted for a hike described as “advanced,” which took us over rocky beaches, through streams, up inclines so steep I tapped into my inner mountain goat to summit them, and across rolling hills to our final, breathtaking destination. Before us was a gorgeous waterfall; behind us was another one. Slightly above us, a reindeer meandered along the cliffs, unbothered by our presence as long as we were unbothered by his. The view was so stunning I forgot about the blisters that formed on my heels thanks to three miles of hiking in muck boots with socks too thin to live up to the challenge. Aside from those of us who arrived on the Endurance, there was no evidence of human life to be seen: no houses, no cars, not even sounds from further away carried in by the wind. The peacefulness that accompanied our isolation was almost as stunning as the landscape.
The peacefulness didn’t last long; after returning to the ship, those of us unhinged enough to participate in the Polar Plunge were invited to don bathing suits and jump into the icy waters of the Davis Strait. Adam, always one for smart decisions, joined the crowd that formed on the 8th deck as I stood in line for my turn to dive in. At 43 degrees Fahrenheit, the water was warmer than when I cannonballed into the Southern Ocean in 2017, but I still welcomed the warm towel and shot of vodka offered to me once I surfaced and joined the party inside.
That night, we feasted on lamb shank and toasted to what might be described as stupidity but by then was considered bravery—at least for those of us with that story to tell.
As it turns out, late summer in the North Atlantic is also unpredictable, and after almost a week wandering through historic spots like Erik the Red’s Brattahlíð and the colorful town of Qaqortoq, one adventure abruptly came to an end as we braced for a new one. The seas were turning stormy, and Captain Oliver had to turn us away from Greenland and back toward Iceland to miss the worst of a storm system forming along our route. The news was largely met with sorrowful acceptance; by the next day, as waves crashed against the Endurance on the outside and stemware crashed to the ground on the inside, every guest was in vehement agreement that departing early was a very, very good idea.
In a way, the three days spent at sea were among the best days of our expedition. 60-foot waves pounded against us, and successfully walking down a hallway without crashing into a wall was a feat worthy of an Olympic medal. After spending the better part of a week walking in the footsteps of the Vikings, who set out for new lands centuries before us, I found it easy to imagine what they might have faced when taking to the seas themselves. Of course, the comparisons stopped there; wooden boats and rationed food don’t hold a candle to the Endurance’s luxurious accommodations, and I was grateful for dozens of cozy spots to read and chat with fellow travelers.
Instead of filling my days with hikes or zodiac rides, I looked forward to curling up on a sofa in the Ice Bar to listen to the naturalists and featured experts share presentations about their research and the adventures they had in some of the most remote corners of the globe. I learned about whaling, how Greenland’s indigenous culture was both threatened and protected, and how climate change impacts more than just the weather. I’m a lifelong learner at heart, but immersing myself in those talks reminded me that it can be all too easy to focus solely on the mechanics of living life when at home. Like many of us, I’m quick to let work and responsibilities overwhelm my days. Protecting time for curiosity, for learning something new just because it’s interesting or fun or important, should be as vital as loading the dishwasher or making a mortgage payment. Society thrives on knowledge, and the curious among us must lead the charge.
One passenger mused that our trip was like roughing it in a five-star hotel, and that proved to be true. Even as the wind howled and the rain poured down, our home on the water remained a floating resort. I was among the lucky ones who found the right combination of medication and tactics to stave off seasickness, and I was rewarded with meal after delicious meal artfully presented and perfectly prepared. Chef Sara and her team went above and beyond to craft menus that incorporated flavors from all over the world, and we dined on fresh pasta, line-caught fish, and lamb as the week went on. On the last night of our trip, we were invited to a culinary experience worthy of a Michelin star; called Charlie’s Table, Chef Sara prepared a seven-course meal influenced by the Earth itself that educated us at the same time it nourished us. Our first course, served on a plate made from ice, represented the seven continents and the dangers that come from the melting polar ice caps. Her culinary vision and flavors only intensified from there. I’m sure people pay thousands of dollars for meals of lesser quality than what we enjoyed on the 8th deck of the Endurance.
The storm felt more intense on the ship’s highest decks, so when our hotel manager Patrick announced a special afternoon treat would be offered on the third deck during the second of three tough at-sea days, a general sense of relief rippled throughout the boat. When the location was confirmed to be the Endurance’s laundry room, I assumed it was a joke; instead, I arrived to find a huge array of cheese and crackers laid out on tables surrounded by washers and dryers. As it turned out, the laundry room was a terrific place to enjoy a break. The boat seemed to move less there, which was a nice reprieve from the fierce rocking on higher decks, and the gentle hum of the dryers combined with the warmth they emitted created a cozy atmosphere.
Between presentations and meals (and many snacks), my favorite spot to visit was the Bridge deck, the nerve center of the Endurance and a space that remained open to guests who wanted to learn more about the ship and our route. During several visits, especially when the bridge was full of visitors hoping to learn something new, Captain Oliver was quick to turn his duties over to a junior officer before seamlessly slipping into the role of a seasoned educator. He took time to answer every question and care to explain the charts and computers strategically placed throughout the room. During the worst of the storm, I managed to stay upright long enough to return to the Bridge. I was surprised to find it was all but empty; a few members of the crew mulled about while others kept their gaze fixed on the horizon, but it felt like business as usual despite the incredibly volatile seas. I left with an overwhelming sense of calm. Most of the ship’s passengers were not built for such extreme conditions, but the National Geographic Endurance was certainly built to withstand the stormiest days.
Expeditions draw you in and keep you spellbound as you fill your days like a kid at summer camp, moving from meal to activity to presentation as the days stitch themselves together. Inevitably, though, they end. The doors open one last time, and you’re returned to the life you lived before: no breakfast buffet, no midday visit to the bridge, no drinks by the fire pit as the fjords hover in the distance. It’s only then that an expedition reveals its truth: the journey was never about the expedition itself at all.
An expedition is a vehicle to something bigger than the ship or the mountains or even the ocean it crosses. We expected our story to simply be about our days in Greenland; we quickly learned the people who were part of our journey were as crucial to our story as the destination. When we returned home to an empty refrigerator, I found myself missing the food we enjoyed onboard, but much more than that I missed the people who made it and served it. I missed Kim and Juan Carlos, who knew without asking if I would want coffee or ginger tea for breakfast. I missed Maureen and Mickey, who served every drink with a smile and knew I would probably be at the bar long after they closed it and went to bed. I missed sitting down next to someone I didn’t know and experiencing what it’s like to build connection to others through storytelling. I missed the belly laughs and philosophical debates that come easiest when tv and internet aren’t a distraction, when we make eye contact and really listen to what someone is saying. The art of the expedition isn’t just the physical adventure. It’s equally about the spark that ignites when you let curiosity and joy take control.
Captain Oliver was right: every expedition is a story. Storytelling is, perhaps, the most valuable and powerful tool we have. Stories unite us, inspire us, and remind us of what we have learned and how we have changed. The story of our expedition is one we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. And we’ll look forward to writing the next one—and to meeting the strangers-turned-friends who will help us author it.
More Information: Expeditions.com
Note: This article shares our experience as part of a Lindblad Expeditions trip, and Adam is a Lindblad employee. The content reflects our views and experiences and is not representative or influenced by Adam’s affiliation with the company.
Looking for more interesting places around the world? Check out these posts from our archives!