It could have been much worse.

When authorities were notified Wednesday of a half-sunk boat in the Wisconsin River, they thought they would be searching for a drowning victim.

They thought so especially after a diver recovered one very wet and dirty black high-top tennis shoe in the sunken portion of the small fishing boat.

As it turns out, that shoe was important; investigators learned Wednesday afternoon that a man, in wet clothing but wearing no shoes, had been seen walking away from the area and had told a witness that his boat had sunk.

With that report, a potential search by divers of the Wisconsin River was called off; the search for the main continues.

With help from line tender and diver Patric McPhee, divers Thorne Wittstruck and Brian Bolgrin of the Columbia County Dive Team spent an hour diving around the boat, taking out debris and looking for other items. Once clear, the boat was hauled out of the water by Wisconsin DNR Conservation Warden Paul Nadolski with help from Columbia County Detective Lt. Roger Brandner and Portage police Detective Dan Pionke.

The half-sunk boat had been stolen at about 6:30 a.m. Wednesday from a resident in the Blackhawk Park area of Portage, Pionke said. A report later in the day prompted a mustering of investigators with Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, Portage Police Department, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Columbia County Dive Team.

The boat’s sinking was puzzling; it is a sound fishing boat. Authorities fount it half sunk into the water of the Wisconsin River along the southern bank near the levee in Blackhawk Park, with its bow pointed upward, and the small outboard motor and the rear half of the boat caught under a fallen tree.

“There’s no way this boat just floating would have gone under,” Pionke said during the boat’s recovery.

Just how it got that way remains a mystery; only the shoeless man will have the full story.

Meanwhile, the boat has been returned — thanks to Blackhawk Park resident Shawn Wasson — to its rightful owner.

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