In the blink of an eye, a defensive grizzly bear sow was rolling like a freight train through the willows along Peters Creek.
Then the brush was bathed in an orange-gray mist.
And in that instant, hiker Carl Ramm saw the sow's eye go wide "and it was gone," he said.
Neither Ramm nor his wife, Susan Alexander, clearly saw the bear leave. They heard it crashing through the brush as it beat a retreat with a cub trailing behind.
"It sounded like a small cub," Ramm said.
See Alaska's bears -- safely.
Similar situations have prompted nasty encounters with brown bears. Grizzly sows are extremely protective of their young. Statistics on bear attacks show a predominance of sows with cubs ripping into people, though they don't often kill.
Almost always, bear experts say, their goal appears to be to neutralize the human by getting them on the ground. That's why standard advice for unarmed people is to get down and cover up, linking the fingers behind the neck so the bear can't grab you.
Unless, of course, you have some way to defend yourself.
Ramm and Alexander did.
Ramm was packing pepper spray. He admits he wasn't a true believer, but he had decided years ago that it was a lot easier to carry a lightweight canister of Counter Assault than a heavy shotgun.
"Up until about three or four years ago," he said, "I needed to take a 12-gauge, but I got tired of lugging that thing."
Besides, he admitted, he wasn't sure of his ability to hit a charging bear with the shotgun if the need arose.
Bear attacks happen so fast that to be effective one's shooting must be instinctive. There is no time to take careful aim.
"It takes a lot of practice," Ramm said.
"I have a significant amount of experience with firearms, both during my time in the infantry and out. There is no way that with a heavy pack in thick brush (with) a bear coming in fast from my side (I could have) done anything other than wound that bear -- if I had even gotten a round off, which I doubt.''
He could, however, fire off a burst from a can of the pepper spray called Counter Assault, which he ripped from a holster at his hip, because no aiming was required.
Like most other red-pepper-based bear repellents, Counter Assault fans out from the nozzle of a spray can in an ever-widening arc.
One need only point the can in the general direction of the bear and squeeze the trigger.
"We've been carrying it for about two years now," Ramm said. "I did some research. We were both reasonably confident of bear spray."
Now, he said, they are "evangelical true believers."
He confesses to being astounded at how the spray instantaneously stopped the bear and turned her away.
"I don't think this was a bluff charge," he added, "because we were between her and her cub.
"The spray hit, and she turned and was gone. That's what amazed me."
Still, Ramm and Alexander could have lived without the exciting weekend experience. Veterans of 20 years of tromping through the Alaska backcountry, they've been contemplating for days how it might have been avoided.
"The whole thing is kind of embarrassing," said Ramm, who is convinced that if the couple had made more noise and paid more attention while working their way up the Peters Creek Trail, they could have avoided the encounter.
"It was the classic bear-charge scenario, I guess," he said. "We were walking into the wind, in dense willows, near a loud, fast-running creek. We should have been shouting at regular intervals, but weren't. ... We might not even have been talking at the time.
"Anyway, we startled her, and we were quite close."
The Ramms did get a quick warning from the sow.
"I heard her woofing," Ramm said, "though woofing seems like a trivial word for the intensity ... and force of it."
The sound alerted him to grab for the pepper spray. He had it in his hand and ready by the time he actually saw the sow crashing through the brush.
He remembers turning to his right, pointing the pepper spray, thinking "This is really bad,'' and pulling the trigger.
Then the bear was gone.
"The point I want to make is that all this happened in no more than six seconds," he added. "The bear was certainly within 20 feet by then. There wasn't a big margin of error. It was a very serious screw-up for us to have gotten into a situation with so little room for error and such serious consequences."
The encounter, he added, wrecked the rest of the outing.
Ramm and Alexander continued on into the high country above Peters Creek, but they had the bears on their minds the whole time.
"We both should have been carrying pepper spray," Ramm said. "Not that we should have both been using it then, definitely not. One was enough. (But) with another full canister we would have felt fine about staying back there for the full length we'd planned. Instead, we hiked back in another four miles or so, spent the night and packed back out the same way the next day.
"There weren't," he added, "a lot of alternatives for ways back out."
Peters Creek has one trail and lots of brush. The bushwhacking is miserable.
"We would have liked to stay longer," Ramm said, "but we just weren't sure how much spray, in practical terms, we had left."
Pepper-spray aerosols are considered a one-shot deterrent. All companies recommend replacing the cans if they are used. The Ramms are now replacing theirs.
Ramm hopes never to need Counter Assault again but adds that he's now confident that it will work if he needs it.
"We'd be happy to proselytize for pepper spray," he said.
Outdoors editor Craig Medred writes a weekly opinion column. He can be reached at email@example.com or 257-4588.