How I accidentally won a ton of outdoor survival gear

I love finding good deals, whether it’s at a yard sale, auction, thrift store or online marketplace. My husband, Derek, is the same. But we try not to go overboard. We know that if we gave in to all of our whims, we’d end up with a bunch of stuff we don’t actually need.

Like a giant air conditioning system that only plugs into a 220-volt dedicated circuit. Or an intricately carved African chair that you can’t actually sit in without fearing it’ll snap in two.

I like to think we learn from our mistakes.

Our restraint — if you’d call it that — has prevented us from filling up our basement and shed with too many odds and ends. But that all changed a few months ago when Derek started renovating and furnishing an apartment building. With a need for kitchen supplies, furniture and construction supplies, Derek is constantly searching for good deals online and at stores. And for the most part, I stay out of it.

But one recent auction, in particular, caught my eye. And how could it not? It included a taxidermy giraffe … and rhinoceros, and hyena. The list goes on and on.

“Is this a museum auction?” I’d asked Derek as I looked through the online listings.

No, he said. It was an estate sale of a local man. And judging by his possessions, he was an adventurous person, to say the least.

In addition to an immense collection of taxidermy, the auction included so much outdoor gear that he could have easily opened his own sporting goods store. Utility knives, walking staves, ammunition, tents, outdoor cookware, hunting gear — he had it all, and in multiples. The man was clearly a collector, and he took care of his things.

Some of the items we accidentally won.

But we weren’t in the market to buy things for ourselves. Derek was looking for potential apartment furniture — nothing more. Seriously, nothing more.

Well, fate would have it another way.

Among the items Derek won were several dressers and bedside stands, and in their drawers, we found a few surprises.

The auctioneers had forgotten to empty several of the drawers, you see, and by the time they realized their mistake, the auction was over. So we received the content for free.

So this past weekend, Derek and I took the opportunity to thoroughly look through the extra loot. As rain pounded on the roof of our storage shed, we opened one drawer at a time.

In the bedside stands, we found several pocket watches, a set of cufflinks, two old alarm clocks and a few letters (which we opted not to read. They weren’t meant for us, after all.) I also found a tiny arrowhead and a golden pocket knife, which I kept.

Then we moved on to one of the dressers, and to my delight, one of the drawers was packed with outdoor survival gear. Compasses, canteens, waterproof matches and first aid kits. Some of it would be useful, and some of it was just plain interesting — like the 1982 Sportsman’s First Aid Guide and the absolutely giant vintage L.L.Bean thermos.

Of course, some of the gear was simply too old to be of use. I’m not sure if I’d rely on the old Skyblazer flare in a pinch, and I’ll have to make sure all the compasses still point north. But much of the survival gear is just as handy today as it was a few decades ago.

So after shocking Derek with a blast from a deer call, I found an old burlap bag and started collecting items that I definitely wanted to keep: an unopened roll of blaze orange duct tape, a Polaris compass, an emergency blanket, several bags of matches and an unopened bundle of twine. I also packed camp cups that matched a set I had at home, and of about a dozen thermoses, I selected my favorite one.

It felt a bit odd rifling through the contents of someone else’s life. Maybe I’m being too sentimental. After all, stuff is just stuff. And estate auctions are a great reminder that in the end, we have to leave it all behind.

After further reflection, I’ve decided that whoever owned all this stuff before would probably be happy to know that some of the gear is going to good use. His matches will light a campfire. His thermos will hold hot chocolate in my backpack as I skate out onto a frozen Maine lake. And his compass will bring me peace of mind as I set off into the woods on another adventure.

Just a few of the many items.

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at