One blast from a can of Counter-Assault bear spray was all it took to make believers out of Carl Ramm and wife Susan Alexander five years ago.
One minute a grizzly bear sow was charging through the thick willows along Peters Creek in Chugach State Park, seemingly intent on flattening the two Anchorage hikers, or worse. And then, just as quickly, the encounter was over.
Ramm pulled the trigger on a canister of Counter-Assault, watched an orange-mist of pepper spray cover the brush and envelop the bear, saw the bear's eyes go wide and last heard her breaking brush as she beat a retreat.
Ninety-eight percent of the time, this is how things go with bear spray, biologist Tom Smith has concluded. In a paper published in "The Journal of Wildlife Management," Smith -- along with co-authors Stephen Herrero, Terry Debruyn and James Wilder -- indicates bear spray might be better than a firearm for protecting yourself against the rare attack.
Bear spray is cheaper. It doesn't require much shooting skill. And in none of the 83 cases the scientists examined was a bear-spray user seriously injured.
"All bear-inflicted injures associated with defensive spraying involved brown bears and were relatively minor," they reported.
Smith noted this has not been the case with firearms, the other main means of self-protection. Wounded bears sometimes turn on people, seriously mauling or killing them.
Seven years ago, Johnny McCoy, a Baptist minister and former North Pole mayor, had his ear ripped off by an Interior grizzly bear that attacked moose-hunting partner Gary Corle. Corle got a shot off at the bear with his rifle, but missed. The bear then turned on the 52-year-old McCoy, who needed surgery to reattach his ear and close large gashes in his forehead, arms and hands.
Bear spray has been used in Alaska more than 20 years, and no similar attacks against those using spray in self-defense have been reported.
In the study for the Wildlife Management journal, scientists examined 83 bear-spray incidents from 1985 to 2006 involving 61 grizzly bears, 20 black bears and two polar bears.
"Ninety-eight percent were uninjured by bears in close-range encounters," they concluded. The few that were injured suffered minor wounds.
Clearly, Smith said, the stuff works.
Now a professor of wildlife science at Brigham Young University, Smith spent years working in Alaska as a bear biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and still owns a cabin on the Kenai Peninsula's Skilak Lake, where he regularly retreats on vacation.
His co-authors are widely recognized authorities on bears.
Herrero, now at the University of Calgary in Alberta, authored "Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance," now considered the essential handbook for people wanting to learn about bears. DeBruyn heads up bear research for the National Park Service in Alaska. Wilder now works for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Collectively, they represent a storehouse of knowledge about bears, and they gave pepper spray a clear endorsement.
"Bear spray represents an effective alternative to lethal force," they wrote.
But it is not without drawbacks, and there are other things people can do to minimize dangerous wildlife encounters. Ramm believes if he and Alexander had made more noise hiking through thick brush along Peters Creek, they would have avoided the grizzly.
And Smith notes there have been problems with bear spray in the wind, although its biggest drawback may be the one-shot limit. Once used, Counter-Assault cannot be reloaded.
As for the wind, Smith reported that in "7 percent of bear spray incidents, wind was reported to have interfered with spray accuracy, although it reached bears in every case."
First developed in the 1960s as a means to ward off aggressive dogs, red-pepper spray is noxious stuff that leads to painfully swollen eyes and nasal passages. Ramm, who has experienced tear gas, called pepper spray far worse.
"Bear spray diffuses potentially dangerous situations in the short term by providing the user time to move out of harm's way and allowing the bear time to reassess the situation and move on," Smith wrote. "When food or garbage is involved, bear spray is effective initially, but one can expect bears to (return) until these attractants are removed."
But bear spray is not quite perfect. Smith notes some problems:
Spray residue has been found to attract brown bears rather than repel them. Someone who sprays a bear in a camping area could inadvertently turn the campground into a bear-baiting station.
Smith suggests weighing canisters and discarding any less than 90 percent of their original weight and dumping any past their expiration date.
Bear spray is banned on commercial airlines. "Major airlines strictly prohibit it, and there is a very stiff fine if you try to sneak it on and get caught," Smith said in an e-mail. He suggests checking whether bear spray can be bought at or near your destination -- or shipped there on Northern Air Cargo, which will take bear spray if you pay a hazardous materials fee.
Smith says he's surprised no one has started renting the canisters in places like Kodiak or King Salmon, which serve as gateways to bear-viewing sites.
Elsewhere, whether walking the dog in the mountains above Anchorage or fishing the Kenai Peninsula, pepper spray would appear a good alternative to a firearm. It is light and easy to carry.
Now might be a good time to think about getting some.
Sean Farley, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game researcher studying bears in and around Anchorage, reported darting the first bear for his studies this week. The animal was a big, boar grizzly that had emerged from a den overlooking Muldoon, he said.
"Persons working and recreating in bear habitat should feel ... safe if carrying bear spray," Smith wrote. The spray may also help bear survival. "No bear spray has ever been reported to kill a bear," Smith wrote.
Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.