The Minnetrista father whose small SUV went through the ice Friday night on Lake Minnetonka, leaving his 9-month-old baby fighting for her life, is suspected of having been drinking before the accident and was driving in a channel, a known danger even to snowmobilers.

The baby, Tabitha Markle, remained in critical condition Saturday, having spent more than 15 minutes submerged in her car seat inside the vehicle before being rescued.

The SUV went through the ice in the channel between Priest and Halstead bays in Lake Minnetonka. That channel runs under County Road 44.

The girl's father, Jonathan L. Markle, 41, was driving the family of four, including Tabitha, his wife, Amanda, 31, and their 2-year-old daughter, Isabelle, home after they had been to a restaurant, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said.

"There are some indications that he was drinking,'' Stanek said of Jonathan Markle. Authorities didn't reveal details of the investigation so far, and blood-alcohol test results were not yet available.

Stanek used the situation as an opportunity to plead for people to use caution before venturing out on the lake ice.

"The ice always has variable conditions," Stanek said. "It is never completely safe."

Channels are especially dangerous because the ice tends to be thinner there. "They are known as an area that ice gives way even to snowmobiles," said Lisa Kiava, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office. "They are known problem areas."

Bret Niccum understands that all too well. That's why he keeps a pole under his deck.

About 5 p.m. Friday, Niccum, whose house is next to the bridge in Priest Bay, pulled into his driveway and heard noise coming from under the bridge as he walked toward his house.

Accompanied by a friend, the former Mound firefighter ran down to the lake and saw a small girl in the water. They were able to reach the child and pull her out of the water, then used the pole to hook the mother, Niccum said.

As they were pulling out Amanda Markle, the father popped up out of the car and told Niccum that his baby was still inside. The father then dived down two or three more times to try to rescue the infant before he stopped because he was too cold, Niccum said.

"You never put yourself in harm's way when there is already somebody in harm's way. ... You wait for the proper help," said Niccum, who said that at first, the father wouldn't let go of the vehicle because he didn't want to leave his daughter.

Niccum and his friend were able to stretch a ladder across the ice to reach the man atop the vehicle before volunteer Mound firefighters arrived.

To reach the baby, two of the firefighters had to unzip their cold-weather suits, which help them float, so that they could dive to cut the straps and free her from her car seat, according to the Sheriff's Office.

The family was taken to Ridgeview Medical Center in Waconia. The parents and the older girl were treated for hypothermia and are expected to recover. Tabitha was airlifted to Children's Hospital in Minneapolis, where she remained in critical condition Saturday.

On Saturday, signs of the accident were still visible, including tire tracks leading to an opening in the ice. The vehicle had been retrieved from the water the night before.

Standing near the bridge, Niccum estimated that he has fished people out four times from the icy waters near his house.

"I have the pole just because I've seen so many things fall through here. ... They go over and under bridges on overpasses, and they think they can do the same on ice," he said.

The Markles weren't the only ones to go through the ice Friday night. Within two hours of the incident, two other vehicles went through the ice on Lake Minnetonka, Stanek said. The people involved in those accidents weren't seriously hurt.

On Saturday, the Sheriff's Office reminded residents that a thin-ice advisory is in place for all bodies of water in Hennepin County.

"Freezing and thawing have created variable ice conditions and caution is recommended," according to a release. "Vehicle travel on all channels on Lake Minnetonka is dangerous and not recommended."

Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495