Readers Cast

THE CANOE (fiction)

Neil M. Travis - Sep 24, 2012

When I bought it the old cabin next to the river it was in need of lots of repair. The roof leaked, the mice had turned the interior into a vacation villa, and a tree was growing up through the roof of the outhouse. I debated about just tearing the whole place down and starting over, but the cabin, built of hand-hewn logs, was structurally sound so the first summer was spent replacing the roof, evicting the mice, and replacing the outhouse. When fall came the cabin was structurally sound and weather tight. During the winter I spent my weekends working on the interior and when spring came I was ready to do some fishing.

The one thing that still needed attention was the porch that stretched across the entire front of the cabin. The entire deck needed to be replaced, which was going to be a major task, but at the end of the season I decided to tackle it before I closed up the cabin for the winter. All the decking was rotting except for a few boards at one end of the porch that curiously seemed to have been replaced. It seemed peculiar that someone had replaced the boards at the end of the porch, but perhaps they had started to replace all the decking and had not completed the project. Whatever the case all of the decking and likely the supports underneath now needed replacement.

The porch was supported by a stone foundation that raised it about 3 feet off the ground, and a set of field stone stairs provided access to the porch from the ground level. The view from the porch provided a commanding view of the river that made a gentle curve as it flowed past the cabin. I was anxious to repair the deck so that the porch would be usable again.

Curious to see if I could determine why only some of the decking had been replaced I started to remove those boards first. As I began to remove the boards I could see that something was underneath them, and as I removed more of the boards I could see that it was a canoe. It was a short canoe; about 13 feet long, and appeared to be constructed of wooden strips. It had been placed on platform of wood under the porch and then the decking had been replaced. Obviously someone had expended considerable effort to protect it. To get it out from beneath the porch it was necessary to remove the decking and the supporting timbers.

After several hours of labor I had removed enough of the decking and supporting timbers to allow me to remove the canoe. The canoe had been placed upside down on a wooden platform and had been covered with a canvas tarp that had rotted away and been eaten by rodents over the years. However, the canoe itself seemed to be in perfect shape despite a thick layer of dust, cobwebs and strips of the canvas tarp that had escape the ravages of rodents and time. I took a broom and swept away the accumulated dust and debris before I turned the canoe over.

The canoe was feather-light and once upright I discovered two hand carved paddles resting beneath the woven cane seats. Whoever had built this canoe and placed it here was someone that I wished I had known. As I contemplated the canoe and its builder I wondered if somehow I could find out who had made it and placed it under the porch.

The next morning I made a visit to the local courthouse. I was directed to the Clerk and Recorders office where I was greeted by a soft spoken older lady who led me back into the vault where all the property records were kept. I showed her my deed and she walked to the back of the vault and returned with a large leather bound book. Placing it on the table she flipped through the pages until she came to page near the back of the book. It was the history of the cabin that I owned. I asked her if she could copy that page and she took the book and returned in a few minutes with a copy.

Later that day I sat at the table in the kitchen of the cabin and began to read the account, carefully documented in long hand by a long-line of County Clerks. The first entry was in 1800 when a man by the name of Thomas Fellows filed a claim on 100 acres of timber land that contained the piece of land where the cabin was located. It appeared that over the next 100 years a series of Fellow's owned the land, but there was no mention of a cabin. Just after the turn of the century, in 1903 the land changed hands and Robert White purchased the property. The White family sold the property in 1920 to a Richard Whitford, and shortly after that a notation was made in the records that the Whitfords' had constructed a cabin on the property. The Whitfords' sold the property to Theodore Sivart in 1936. I pulled out my deed and the last name on the record before I purchased the property was Theodore Sivart.

The next morning I was back at the courthouse combing through the vital statistics of the people that had lived in the county over the last century. Theodore Sivart had been born in 1900 and died in 1989. He was buried in the local county cemetery.

My next stop was the local library where the librarian provided me with a book on local history and showed me where I could find Mr. Sivart's obituary from the local newspaper. Armed with the book and a copy of his obituary I retired to the cabin to read about the man that had owned the cabin and most certainly had placed the canoe beneath the porch.

"Theodore Charles Sivart had been born on January 1, 1900, the first child of Richard and Hilda Sivart. Theodore's father was a prominent landowner and a prosperous farmer, but most of the family members left the area during the Depression. Theodore served in the army during World War 1 and saw action in France near the end of the war. When he returned home he attended Harvard, graduated with a law degree and became a junior partner in a large law firm in New York City. He retired as a senior member of the firm in 1965 and died in Florida on November 30, 1989. He was preceded in death by his parents, his wife Mary and one son Thomas. He was buried in Walton, New York."

The obituary offered little insight into his life and offered nothing concerning the cabin or the canoe. The book of local history related some material about his family but recorded nothing about Theodore Sivart and the cabin. I needed to dig deeper if I hope to find the answer to my riddle.
The next day I returned to the county courthouse and went back to the Clerk and Recorders office. I spoke to the Clerk, the older lady that had assisted me in my initial search of the property records. I hope that since she appeared to be a long time resident of the area perhaps she could help me locate someone that might have known Theodore Sivart when he owned the cabin. She directed me to the local historical society and a man named Michael Towner. She assured me that if anyone knew anything about Theodore Sivart he was the man.

Later that day I walked up the sidewalk at a modest house located on the edge of town. An elderly gentleman answered my knock. I introduced myself and told him why I had come, and he ushered me inside. Indeed, he had known Theodore Sivart, in fact he had been to the cabin many times when he was in residence there. He spent summers at the cabin fly fishing the area streams, and they had often fished together. I asked him if he knew anything about the wooden canoe that I found under the porch. He grew silent and then he told me that I would find the answer to that question at the local cemetery.

Early the next morning I met with the sexton of the local cemetery and he led me to the Sivart family plot located in a quiet corner of the cemetery. Large hemlock trees and large maple trees provided a serene setting for the last resting place of the Sivart family. A simple marble headstone marked the final resting place of Theodore Charles Sivart lying beneath the sod next to his wife and son Thomas. I read the headstones but I was stopped short by the inscription on the headstone that marked the place where Thomas was buried. "Died April 30, 1989," just seven months before his father, but it was the other grave next to Thomas that also caught my attention; "Barbara June Sivart, born June 1, 1940. Died April 30, 1989."

I went back to the library and asked to see the obituaries for April 1989. Finally I had the answer that I had been looking for concerning the canoe under the porch. There, in the dim light of the library research room, I read the obituaries of Thomas and Barbara Sivart.

"Thomas Milton Sivart was born on November 1, 1936 the son of Theodore and Mary Sivart in New York City. He grew up in New York City and upon his graduation from high school he followed in his father's footsteps and attended Harvard Law School where he graduated with honors in 1961. Upon graduation he joined his father's law firm. On May 5, 1962 he married Barbara June Black."

The obituary went on to list his numerous accomplishments and various hobbies, which included fly fishing. However, it was the final few lines of the obituary that finally settled the mystery of the canoe under the porch.

"On April 30th Thomas and Barbara were canoeing in a new handmade canoe that Thomas had recently built when it overturned and Thomas and Barbara both drowned. The canoe was gift that Thomas was going to give to his father and they were taking it on a maiden voyage before they gave it to his father."

Today the canoe hangs in the sunroom that overlooks the river that runs past the cabin. The two hand-carved paddles frame a picture that I found of Theodore and Thomas wearing waders and holding fly rods. Sometimes, when the fire in the fireplace has burnt down to just a few embers and the flickering flames are throwing strange shadows across the ceiling I imagine I can see two people sitting in the canoe. They are smiling.

Author's Note
The names of the individuals mentioned in this story are purely fictional, and any resemblances to anyone living or dead are purely unintentional.

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