I'm standing at the edge of a lake, focusing my camera on the jumble of timber cottages and their reflections in the sheet of water below. Tottering on stilts the shacks look like a brood of long-legged birds gathered at the water's edge, while in the distance snow-tipped mountains soar against a leaden sky. The creep of a rising tide has my boots stuck in the mud like an anchor.
"Hold still," says my photographer guide Andy Coleman, as we wait for the surface to settle after a runabout passes out to sea. "Big sky and big water is the key to a good reflection shot."
We're in Petersburg, a small Alaskan fishing village on Mitkof Island in Frederick Sound, where high tides flush the narrow outlet of Hammer Slough twice each day. The only thing not rushing in is hordes of tourists, as the large cruise ships can't enter Petersburg's shallow harbour, or the notorious channel of Wrangel Narrows.
We've arrived aboard the 100-passenger National Geographic Venture, an expedition ship purpose built to access the more out-of-the-way places of Alaska's Inside Passage. While some guests have chosen to explore by bike, foot or float plane, I have joined a photo walk with Coleman, a well-respected National Geographic photographer.
To spend two hours in the field shooting alongside Coleman would be thrill enough, but on this trip we have access to a National Geographic photographer for the duration. From evening talks to walks through bear country, Coleman is with us, offering technical tips as well as insights into what it takes to tell a compelling travel story through photographs.
"Set the scene with your hero shots, but don't forget to capture the cultural detail," he says.
Following Coleman's lead we challenge ourselves to try different angles, one that puts a distorted reflection of a Norwegian flag in an upstairs window, another juxtaposing the historic Sons of Norway hall against the Viking ship Valhalla. Founded more than 100 years ago by Norwegian fishermen, Petersburg wear's its "Little Norway" moniker with pride.
Coleman encourages us to show the town's long association with the sea. On crouched knees we zoom in on rusted chains, letting the fishing boats blur and drift in the distance. A sleepy fisherman, all stubble and wild hair, waves from a doorway, his portrait framed in driftwood, while a totem pole tells of the First Nations Tlingit people.
Down on the wharves it's all hands on deck as fish are cleaned and harbour seals honk for scraps, our fast shutter speed freezing their joyous backflips as they land a catch on the full.
We finish at Kito's Kave, the quintessential Alaskan dive bar you hope you'll find; the one with wall-to-wall flannelette shirts; where timber walls are covered with maps and mooseheads; where the beer is good and the cover band is dreadful. Where it's time to pack away our cameras and mingle with the locals, content in the knowledge that there's a time for taking photos and a time for making connections.
"That's the true secret of good travel photography," says Coleman.
Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of Lindblad Expeditions.
Qantas flies to San Francisco daily from Melbourne and Sydney, with onward connections to Seattle. See qantas.com.au
Lindblad Expeditions' 14 day Treasures of the Inside Passage travels from Seattle to Sitka (or reverse) visiting the San Juan Islands, Victoria, Petersburg, Misty Fiords, Icy Strait and Glacier Bay. From AU$12,490 a person. See expeditions.com