At Gulfstream Restaurant, the inspiring founder of the National Center of Outdoor & Adventure Education digs in
By Dana Sachs
This summer, ten local teens will fly to Alaska, take a small plane into the back country, and spend three weeks hiking and clearing trails. These days, many young people go on similar organized wilderness adventures, but these Wilmington teens are not typical participants. They all have either been identified as “chronically homeless” or they live below the poverty level, and all of them are dedicated and motivated for change. Each of them earned this trip — which is funded, in part, through a $25,000 grant from the National Park Service — by excelling at a program called Education Without Walls.
“These kids deserve to be the next astronauts or doctors or lawyers,” says Zac Adair, executive director of the nonprofit National Center of Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE), which runs Education Without Walls. “We want to give them that chance.”
I’m having lunch with Zac at Gulfstream Restaurant, only a mile or so from NCOAE’s 17-acre campus in Carolina Beach. Zac, at 42, is a former adventure guide himself, and I can easily imagine him communicating both confidence and reassurance to these teens — 80 percent “You can do it!” and 20 percent “We’ll help you if you falter.”
Zac’s enthusiasm stems, in part, from a deep-rooted faith in our species — “Human beings are pretty amazing,” he says — but his optimism may also come from the fact that he has overcome hardship himself. Zac is blind. He steps into the wilderness every day.
For his first 28 years, Zac had normal vision and a more-than-normal love of the outdoors. “I was surfing, it seems, as soon as I was able to swim. I was always running around in woods, climbing on rocks.” After high school, he enrolled at the University of Georgia, but college wasn’t right for him. When his parents saw his first set of grades, they said, “OK, you’re on your own.
He was fine with that. He wanted to build a career from his passion, so he went to work as a river rafting guide and ski instructor. “I lived out of the back of my Toyota Tacoma for many years,” he says. “That was great. I did lots of couch surfing.”
Everything changed one afternoon in 2003. After spending a day surfing on the Outer Banks, he got on his bike to ride home. It was dusk, and he was standing at an intersection — at a “dead stop,” he says — when a distracted driver ran into him. Nine days later, Zac woke from a coma. He was blind and his cervical spine had broken in six places. He spent four months in the hospital, six months with a walker (“like an old person”) and the next year recovering from both physical injury and depression. “I lost everything I had,” he tells me. He would never again work as an outdoor guide, and he couldn’t return to his back-up work as a carpenter, either. “There was no way that I was getting a job with anyone after that.”
But Zac still had his knowledge about nature and an inherent strength. He’d enjoyed independence his whole life, so he wasn’t willing to become dependent on anyone now. Even blind, he decided, he had a future — but not as someone’s employee. “No one else would have me, so I decided I’d compete with them.” He needed a degree to do that, so he enrolled at Prescott College, which has an excellent reputation for outdoor and adventure education.
To get to Prescott, Zac flew by himself to Arizona, then found his way from the airport to the college. Cane in hand, he walked into the admissions office and introduced himself: “Hey, I’m Zac. I’m starting here in a couple of weeks.” When he explained that he needed housing, one of the admissions officers led him out to his pickup truck and said, “Let’s go look at some places.” Four years later, Zac graduated from Prescott with both a B.A. and an M.A. in Adventure Education.
Zac wanted to build an organization dedicated to helping people learn in the outdoors, so he started making contacts. Research on the internet led him to Celine Russo, his future wife and business partner, who had graduated from Prescott a few years earlier. Pretty soon, the two were talking on the phone all night. When he finally flew to Colorado to visit her, she recognized him immediately. “I was probably the only guy with a red and white cane,” he says. They’ve been together ever since. They moved to Carolina Beach in 2008 and formally opened NCOAE with Zac as executive director and Celine as director of operations. The organization started out with $1,000, most of which went into purchasing eight backpacks. These days, their annual budget approaches $1,000,000 and they have 50 guides running trips throughout the world, plus four full-time office staff members. NCOAE’s wide-ranging course catalog includes outdoor-educator training in Patagonia, college-credit semesters in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, basic and advanced EMT courses, and wilderness medicine training at the Carolina Beach headquarters.
The nautical-themed Gulfstream Restaurant is only a mile or so from NCOAE’s rustic, wooded campus, so Zac often comes in the mornings for corned beef hash. Today, we order lunch specialties, including the Fisherman’s Catch, a pick-your-favorites combo. Ours features fried oysters, shrimp, scallops and flounder. Fans of Calabash-style seafood know that deep frying presents challenges, and Gulfstream’s cooks avoid mistakes. “Some restaurants,” Zac says, “will bread the hell out of it. They didn’t do that.” We both like the oniony hushpuppies, which Zac calls “gooey on the inside and crunchy on the outside.” The open-faced turkey sandwich is “savory, very Southern, not overloaded with gravy or bread, and not too soggy.” And, as for the BBQ Bacon Burger, Zac said, ‘I’ll give it a 10 out of 10.”
After lunch, I drive him back to his office and we talk for a minute in the car. I’m watching a couple of guys playing Frisbee on the lawn while Zac tells me his plans for the property — a house for his family, a better road through the trees (he’d like to try to ride a bike). After we say goodbye, he starts up the path toward the office with his cane. Then, hearing the Frisbee players, he stops to join them. He raises an arm into the air and says, “Here.” One guy hands him the disc.
Zac tips his face toward the sky, listening. “Where?” he asks.
From across the lawn, another guy yells to signal his location.
Zac orients himself to the sound of the voice, pulls the Frisbee to his chest, then flings his arm and lets it fly.
Gulfstream Restaurant, at 78 Myrtle Avenue in Carolina Beach, is open every day for every meal. Call (910) 458-8744 to find out more about its menu and hours. The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education offers its wide-ranging course catalog and other information at https://ncoae.org.
Dana Sachs’ latest novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, is available at bookstores, online and throughout Wilmington.