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Minn. outdoors writer comes back from near-death experience

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Gary Clancy's epitaph was almost written last October when he fell out of his fishing boat in a cold northern Minnesota lake.

Clancy, 59, a well-known Minnesota outdoors writer, author and speaker, was fishing alone on the quiet lake when he reached over the side to retrieve a float and fell in. With his left arm useless because of the effects of cancer, he clung to his boat as it drifted down the lake, then let go and tried desperately to backstroke with one arm 50 yards to an island.

"I had all these heavy clothes on, and it weighed me down," he recalled.

Exhausted and ready to give up, he stopped to assess his progress -- and sank just 15 feet from shallow water.

"I just kept going down," he said. "I couldn't get back up. I thought, 'well, that's it -- I guess I drown.' Then a thought came to me as clear as could be, and it was that Lucas, my 4-year-old grandson, wasn't going to understand why grandpa drowned.

"I was just suddenly on the surface again ... I made it the last 15 feet. I don't know how I did it. It was God, I think ... or dumb luck."

For Clancy, who has been writing about his passion for hunting and fishing more than 25 years, it was nearly his last chapter. Now he's got more stories to tell.

He has been a prolific writer, including for national publications such as Field & Stream, Outdoor Life and Sports Afield. He has authored eight books -- one on turkey hunting and seven on deer hunting. He is a columnist for Outdoor News and the Post-Bulletin of Rochester.

And he's a regular speaker at hunting and sports shows, sharing a lifetime of outdoor experiences and knowledge.

It's been a good life.

"I've got the world's best job," he said from his log cabin on the Root River near Stewartville in southeastern Minnesota.

But there have been serious challenges of late. The near-drowning last fall wasn't his first encounter with death.

Three years ago, he nearly died after being treated for non-Hodgkin lymphoma in the nerves on the left side of his face. Once the cancer was diagnosed, he had radiation and chemotherapy treatments. His kidneys shut down. "I was close to cashing it in," he said.

Then he developed a pain in his left shoulder, and doctors discovered lymphoma in the nerves there, too, and began treatment.

"The left arm and hand were useless," he said.

Last fall, using just his good right arm, Clancy hunted upland birds with a 20 gauge shotgun.

"I shot pretty darned good one-handed," he said. And he's getting some strength back in the left arm. But for the first time in decades, he couldn't bow-hunt.

It was that weakened left arm that he was leaning against when he fell overboard.

The cancer, he said, is the result of his exposure to Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant used during the Vietnam War, where he saw combat.

"Combat is the most intense human experience I can imagine. It's burned into your being," he said. "Rarely a day goes by that something doesn't trigger a memory of Vietnam.

"Nothing since has been difficult by comparison."

Clancy grew up in Albert Lea and quickly developed his passion for the outdoors. He remembers fishing for catfish with his dad and aunt when he was 4. At 5, his dad gave him an empty .22 caliber rifle to carry along while duck and pheasant hunting.

"He said if I don't point it any anyone or do anything careless, I'd get a bullet the next year," he recalled with a chuckle. At 6, he bagged his first squirrel. And by 8, he was hunting duck and pheasant with his own shotgun. As he grew up, he trapped and hunted after school at nearby Goose Lake.

After he returned from the service, Clancy worked as a deputy county recorder, then a truck driver. All while hunting and fishing at every opportunity.

He was dabbling in outdoors writing when the truck driver job evaporated.

Though married and with two young daughters, he decided in 1982 to try to become a full-time outdoors writer. His wife, Nancy, worked as an X-ray technician while Gary cared for the kids at home and wrote.

"We darned near starved to death," he said.

But determination paid off. He sold stories. His reputation grew. Eventually, national magazines called him to do stories.

"Behind every successful outdoor writer is a woman with a good job," he said.

He has written most about whitetail deer. "I really enjoy bow hunting for whitetails, and if I had to pick one thing, that's what I'd pick," he said.

But he hunts virtually everything else, including turkeys. (He has hunted them in 17 states.) And he is an avid angler who enjoys fishing with Nancy and the couple's three daughters: Michelle, 30; Kelli Jo, 28; and Katie, 21.

But when Clancy is fly fishing on a southeastern Minnesota trout stream, he leaves his notebook, camera and thoughts behind.

"It's the one thing I do outdoors that I decided not to write about," he said. "Everything else I do is a potential column or story. I decided trout fishing was just going to be for me. It's my great escape."

His cancer has slowed him a bit. The prognosis is uncertain. He's not writing as much as he used to. But his passion for the outdoors still burns deeply.

"I keep going and trying to do it," Clancy said. "The easiest thing is to sit on couch and not try."

For now, he's savoring every day, one at a time.

"Who knows what's down the road?" he said.