Douglas Fickel (left) of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and Registered Maine Guide Bob Lento pose with the 120-pound black bear Fickel shot on Sept. 5 in Aroostook County. Credit: Courtesy of Doug Fickel Sr.

Douglas Fickel Jr. has been using a wheelchair since he was 9 years old.

The man from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, has ataxia-telangiectasia — also known as Louis-Bar Syndrome — which is a rare inherited neurodegenerative disease.

There are only 400 people in the world living with ataxia-telangiectasia, according to Fickel Jr.’s father, Doug Fickel Sr.

“Most kids with A-T don’t live out of their teens,” Fickel Sr. said of his son, who is now 28.

Many people with Louis-Bar Syndrome develop some form of cancer or other diseases because of their compromised immune systems. At 14, Fickel Jr. was diagnosed with acute leukemia and spent 350 days in the hospital receiving chemotherapy.

Undaunted, Fickel Jr. continues to defy the odds while pursuing the sport he loves. His latest achievement includes harvesting a 120-pound sow, aided by the expert guidance of Registered Maine Guide Bob Lento, whose adaptations made the hunt possible.

Doug Fickel Sr. (left) of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, helps his son, Douglas Fickel Jr., gear up for a black bear hunt in Aroostook County on Sept. 5. Fickel Jr., who suffers from ataxia-telangiectasia, a rare inherited neurodegenerative disease, shot a 120-pound sow. Credit: Courtesy of Bob Lento

The elder Fickel said his son really enjoys getting outdoors, especially hunting. In 2015, with the help of Aroostook County guide Joe Boyd and the Hunt of a Lifetime Foundation, Fickel Jr. harvested a bull moose.

In 2019, when Fickel Jr. turned 25, his parents helped him fulfill a dream by taking him on a safari to Africa, where he shot a kudu, a species of antelope.

“That was on his bucket list, and my wife and I made that happen,” Doug Fickel said.

It was through Boyd’s connection with Lento that the Fickels returned to Maine earlier this month. This time, Fickel Jr. was targeting a black bear.

Boyd briefed Lento on Fickel Jr.’s needs, which included access to a hunting site via a wheelchair equipped with tracks that can handle uneven terrain.

“It just opened up so many avenues for him to just be able to get outdoors and enjoy outdoor activities,” Fickel Sr. said.

Lento did not hesitate to offer his services and immediately said he would not charge for the hunt. He was confident that he could put Fickel Jr. in a position where he could effectively hunt at a bait site from the ground.

Lento chose a location that was adjacent to a farm field and was accessible by an old skidder trail. He cleared the way as best he could to accommodate Fickel Jr.’s chair and constructed a ground blind shack using cedar slabs.

Prior to the hunt, since it was a new bait site, no bears visited it for the first two weeks. Eventually, a big one appeared on camera.

Lento wondered whether the lubricants used by the chair might introduce scents to the site that would keep the bears and their keen sense of smell away. They did not.

The Fickels arrived for the hunt on the afternoon of Sept. 5, and Fickel Sr. got his son into his chair, geared up, and headed to the blind.

Fickel Sr. fitted the wheelchair with bars and brackets to hold the rifle. And because Fickel Jr. experiences involuntary movements and has limited vision, he is unable to hunt looking directly through a scope.

The solution is a device that mounts an iPhone on the front of the scope, providing a zoomed-in look at the target area on the larger screen.

“It was like looking at a hunting video game,” Lento said of the setup. “You could see the scope, the crosshairs and where the bear came in.”

At about 6 p.m., Fickel Jr. saw a bear approach the site. His dad couldn’t see it because he was positioned to the side of the hole in the camouflage netting.

The bear did not present Fickel Jr. with a good shot.

“Unbeknownst to us, there were two bears,” Fickel Sr. said. “The second came in and gave him a nice broadside shot and he took his time and he squeezed and the bear took off.”

With a limited field of visibility, they didn’t see the bear run off. Lento was pleasantly surprised to receive the phone call with the news and headed over for the recovery.

“It was very exciting,” Lento said. “He was ecstatic.”

There were some tense moments for the Fickels after they learned there wasn’t much blood visible. Fickel Jr. was shooting a .308 rifle, the same gun he used to kill his moose.

“When I told Douglas that, both our hearts sank a little bit,” Fickel Sr. said. “We both got a little anxious because when we go hunting, we don’t want to wound an animal.”

Finally, in the dark, Lento discovered the bear a short distance from the site.

“He was very excited but, like a normal hunter, he wishes it would have been the biggest one out there,” Fickel Sr. said of his son’s reaction to seeing the bear.

The sow weighed approximately 120 pounds.

Douglas Fickel of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, is all smiles after his successful bear hunt on Sept. 5 in Aroostook County. Credit: Courtesy of Bob Lento

“He was very relieved that they were able to recover it. I think his most important response was, ‘I’m glad they found it,’” Fickel Sr. said.

Fickel Sr. wasn’t at all surprised how the hunt worked out, because he is keenly aware of his son’s tenacity.

“You’re not gonna meet a more happy or positive young man than he is,” Fickel Sr. said. “He gets down, he gets frustrated when he can’t do things, but he will never give up.”

Fickel Sr. was incredibly appreciative of the considerable efforts Lento and Boyd made to enable his son to enjoy successful hunts in Maine.

“Douglas wouldn’t be able to experience this stuff without guys like Bob and Joe that are willing to put time and effort into it,” Fickel Sr. said.

“For them to take the time out and and manage how to do it and how to get him in safely and out safely and and then have an enjoyable hunt, It says a lot about those guys,” he said.

Lento admits he has a soft spot for youth and women who want to hunt bears and offers some of them free hunts. He was deeply touched by the experience with Fickel Jr.

As a result, Lento plans to maintain the modified bait site with the ground blind for use in the future.

“I’m going to offer another free hunt next year to someone with a disability,” said Lento, who posted his intention on the Maine Black Bear Hunting Facebook page. “I asked people to reach out to me, send me a message and see if we can’t do it again. It makes me feel happy, too.”

Pete Warner

Pete graduated from Bangor High School in 1980 and earned a B.S. in Journalism (Advertising) from the University of Maine in 1986. He grew up fishing at his family's camp on Sebago Lake but didn't take...