By the time he was 15, Clarence Rhode was a deputy game warden in Washington state and knew he wanted to spend his life working with wildlife. He moved to Alaska to work for the U.S. Forest Service and earned a commercial flying license. He told friends he had three loves in life — family, Alaska fish and game, and flying.


Rhode worked as a commercial pilot during World War II, flying the first Grumman Goose for Alaska Coastal Airlines. After the war, he secured a fleet of the planes from military surplus for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, where he was named regional director.


Rhode decided early that the airplane was vital to the protection of Alaska’s wildlife. He recruited wildlife biologists and trained them to be pilots who could make aerial game surveys. In Forgotten Heroes: Police Officers Killed in Alaska 1850–1997, William Wilbanks wrote that “in scarcely a decade, the Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska progressed from dog teams and month–long waits for mail and messages to lightning–swift radio communications statewide and fast, far–roaming airplanes that allowed agents to cover hundreds of miles literally overnight.”


Despite not having a college degree, Rhode helped establish the Department of Wildlife Management at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks in 1949. He later earned Department of the Interior and Congressional Record citations for his air rescue work.


In the end, however, he was not able to rescue himself and died doing what he loved and valued so much. Rhode took off in a Grumman Goose amphibious aircraft from Fairbanks on Aug. 20, 1958, on a routine flight to look over the proposed Arctic wildlife area and count Dall sheep. He was joined by his eldest son, Jack, and colleague Stan Fredericksen.


The plane disappeared, prompting one of the largest air and ground searches in Alaska history, but it was not until 1979 that two women backpacking in the Brooks Range found a small plane destroyed by fire. It had exploded on impact with a rock wall.


To honor his pioneering work as a pilot and conservationist, the Kuskokwim Wildlife Range in southwestern Alaska was renamed the Clarence Rhode National Wildlife Range in 1961. In 1980, the range became part of Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.