Northern alumnus and Ishpeming native Erik Conradson ‘03 BS established the nonprofit Courage Incorporated in 2015 to offer veterans and civilians with physical disabilities the opportunity to participate in outdoor wilderness-based adventures free of charge.
“I really believe that a connection to the outdoors can ground you, heal you and put things in perspective,” he said. “The woods don’t judge you for who you are or your accomplishments, but they reveal the kind of person you are at your core.”
Conradson vividly recalls an early excursion guiding a Marine veteran to Yellow Dog Falls. He said it perhaps best demonstrates the meaningful and potentially transformative impact his organization can have on individuals who assume they are no longer capable of immersing themselves in nature and reaping its therapeutic benefits.
Andrew was in his mid-50s, a former outdoor enthusiast whose fused spine degraded his mobility and increased his pain level to the point he stopped camping and fishing with his family. It was a crushing void until he learned about Courage Incorporated and was inspired to attempt a hike along the Yellow Dog River. Halfway to the destination, despite obvious physical strain, Andrew remarked how good it felt to be outdoors again, and that he would not have had the opportunity without the organization’s help.
“As we heard the falls getting closer, I urged him to walk ahead and scope out the view,” Conradson said. “He turned the corner and suddenly there was a loud shriek. I couldn’t see him and thought maybe he had fallen or something awful happened. When I caught up, I found him sobbing uncontrollably with joy because he thought he would never see another waterfall. The rest of that day, he appreciated every painful step he took.”
Andrew was so proud of himself for tackling that challenge and so profoundly impacted by the experience, that he now serves as a volunteer on the majority of Courage Incorporated’s outings and has even led some. By sharing his own story and offering encouragement, he bolsters others’ self-confidence and sense of accomplishment.
The 2021 U.P. Veteran of the Year, Bill Hager, has also gone on a number of Courage Incorporated excursions and has promoted the organization at several community events. Conradson has personal ties to other vets, including his dad and brother. Several of his friends decided to join the service in the galvanizing wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which happened while he was a student at Northern.
“You hear about vets’ experiences and how some come back from tours as different people, either physically, psychologically or both,” he said.
"Many returned with a strong desire to find themselves by reconnecting with the outdoors, but lacked the means to achieve that."
"Our mission is to spark the courage in them to join other folks who are similarly vulnerable yet nonjudgmental and to just give it a try. I did not serve in the military, but this is a way I can give back to those who did and face lingering challenges.”
Another inspiring story Conradson shared revolved around Tina, a civilian who endured numerous health complications and a loss of mobility from injuries sustained in a traumatic accident, which prevented her from enjoying the outdoors as she once did. Tina joined Courage Incorporated on an excursion and muscled her way through an entire weekend of activities on a set of double-arm crutches.
“She recognized her limitations, but left with the realization that outdoor activities were still feasible,” Conradson explained. “After our trip, she started doing some adaptive biking and took her kids camping in the Porkies and on backpacking adventures. She utilized the confidence she regained in herself to reclaim a part of her life that she thought she lost. She still sends us periodic updates letting us know what she’s doing, and credits her meaningful experience with our organization for making it possible.”
Courage Incorporated offers multiple day or weekend trips each year. Beyond hiking, activities include fishing, camping, kayaking/canoeing and boating. To encourage social interaction, participants often engage in outdoor cooking over a fire, creating impressive meals such as pineapple and bacon-wrapped pork tenderloins, and steak and chicken kabobs.
Ice fishing was recently added to facilitate year-round opportunities for engagement. One outing required Courage Incorporated staff to transport a participant via ATV to a fishing site on the frozen lake, transfer him to a waiting wheelchair, then pick up an ice shack and reposition it over the man and the chair before stabilizing it.
“We like to get down to the brass tacks so we know how best to serve each person based on their unique needs. We reach out with a phone call before each event and ask questions that can be awkward: Are they able to use a regular bathroom? Do they need assistance making their beds? We’re just trying to be accommodating.”
Courage Incorporated is based in the Upper Peninsula, where 80% of its participants reside. Operations are coordinated by Conradson from Appleton, Wis., where he works full time as a property owner/manager and resides with his wife and two children. He previously was employed in positions more directly related to his NMU criminal justice degree: first as an executive team leader in assets protection, safety and logistics for Target Corporation; and more recently as an assets protection manager for two Cabela’s stores in Wisconsin.
"I get just as much out of it as the campers and it's good for the soul. Being a part of nature while committing an act of service for someone else is both life-changing and grounding at the same time." - Rhonda Numikoski
As a Northern student who intended to work in corrections, Conradson benefitted from the insights of Professor John Andrews, a former warden at Alger Maximum Correctional Facility. Andrews’ candor about how difficult the work was both mentally and emotionally helped inform Conradson’s career path after graduation. He pursued loss prevention instead, based in part on the industry leaders who contributed real-world perspectives and advice when Professor Bob Hanson invited them to serve as guest speakers in his Northern classes.
It was during his employment at Cabela’s that Conradson “sowed the initial seeds” for Courage Incorporated, exploring how his professional connection to an outdoor gear retailer might facilitate his mission. Despite earning regional Cabela’s awards for leadership and excellence in execution, Conradson’s position was eliminated when the chain was purchased by another company.
“I had been working at different jobs since I was 14 and always strived to be a dedicated employee, so to suddenly be out of work was dumbfounding and caused me to panic for a while. But God bless my wife, who’s more analytical and strategic than me. She said, ‘We’ll adjust and manage; it will be okay,” and it was. I had more time to focus on Courage Incorporated and get it off the ground. From that perspective, losing my job was probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
The organization began humbly. Conradson knocked on doors, looking for used camping equipment, or asked residents hosting rummage sales to donate some to the cause. The first Courage Incorporated trip on a rain-soaked weekend featured a tarp, fire pit and cooler filled with a pack of water and a couple of hot dogs. He has since partnered with outdoor companies to acquire new gear, and is quick to convey his appreciation for community support, as well as grants provided by the Superior Health Foundation and West End Health Foundation.
Courage Incorporated has boosted its presence on social media. Conradson said YouTube videos have been particularly valuable because prospective participants can see for themselves what the adventures look like—a prosthetic leg walking through beach sand, an all-terrain power chair rolling through the woods—rather than merely reading a description.
The organization is powered by four volunteers, including Conradson. NMU alumna and Army veteran Rhonda Numikoski ’97 BS is director of operations and president of the board.
“My favorite part is being on an excursion and seeing two campers or a camper and a volunteer make a connection that extends beyond the Courage weekend,” Numikoski said.
“The best way to explain it is with the words of a frequent camper-turned-volunteer: ‘What Courage does is not religious in any way, but it certainly is spiritual.’ Another camper slipped a note to me on the last day of our trip that I carry with me always. It reads, ‘Sometimes we get the miracle. Sometimes we get to be the miracle.’ And that is why I volunteer with Courage Inc.”
Conradson said Courage Incorporated not only benefits the individuals it serves, but also the volunteers who help them re-engage with nature and get to witness the escalation of their confidence and spirits.
“Selfishly, it’s so nice to be involved because I realize we’re impacting lives in ways we can’t comprehend, since we’re not in their situation. When I return to the U.P., I’m often doing things I love outdoors that I used to take for granted. This allows me to do it in a way that makes a meaningful impact for others that can last forever. It’s not just about taking people camping or fishing; it’s about giving them a piece of their lives back and seeing their progression and watching them leave a different person than when they started. You can’t ask for more than that.”
For more information, visit courageincorporated.org or check in with its Facebook and YouTube accounts.
Written by Kristi Evans