Steve Johnson carefully pushed a hollow aluminum tube into the snow at the snow survey site on the Siskiyou Summit early Tuesday morning.

Steve Johnson carefully pushed a hollow aluminum tube into the snow at the snow survey site on the Siskiyou Summit early Tuesday morning.

As he focused on the task at hand, he ignored biting wind that made the 27-degree temperature feel like single digits.

"It's good the ground is frozen," he said as he gently lifted the tube out of the snow. "When the ground is soft and wet, you sometimes have a hard time figuring out where the snow ends and the dirt begins."

This marks the 21st winter that Johnson, 60, snow ranger for the Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, has taken the first winter measurement at the snow survey site, about 4,600 feet above sea level.

Since 1935, snow depth and water content has been measured at the site near the end of December. At the end of January, Johnson will also take measurements on the Ski Bowl Road, the Mount Ashland switchback and Caliban, all higher-elevation sites on Mount Ashland that he will survey through the end of April. His last Siskiyou Summit measurement for the year will be in March.

Even before reading the first of 10 measurements he took at the summit, Johnson knew the average snow depth would be only about 50 percent of normal at the summit.

After all, the snow was barely above his ankles. Last year at this time it averaged 26 inches, for 200 percent of average.

"We should have 13 inches or so here this time of year," he observed. "But it is early. It's no cause for concern at the moment, especially the way the forecast is for the coming week. We can easily catch up.

"By the time we do the next snow survey a month from now, we could be above normal," he added. "It's too early to tell."

The Forest Service works with the Natural Resource Conservation Service to take measurements both manually and via automated snow telemetry (Sno-tel) sites during the winter to gauge the mountain snowpack, an important indicator of the coming water year because it provides water for summer stream flows and reservoir storage. The telemetry devices automatically measure the snow water content at remote sites across the mountains.

The tools Johnson uses — hollow tubes and a weighing device — are largely the same ones invented by professor James Church at the University of Nevada-Reno about a century ago, he said.

"There were slight modifications that took place here and there, but the concept is the same," Johnson said.

He did his first snow survey on the mountain in 1986 as an assistant. By 1988, he was measuring snow depth and weighing snow water once a month during the winter at all four sites.

"One of the tricks of the trade I learned was to lay these (tubes) in the snow so they get good and cold," he said. A warm tube can melt snow, causing the measurement to be slightly off.

Because of the low snow depth on Tuesday, he sampled 10 spots in the survey site, which is about 150 feet long.

"You always offset them about a foot each time so that when you come back you don't sample an old hole," he explained.

Tracks from several deer crisscrossed the survey site. What appeared to have been a squirrel also had hopped across it, perhaps looking for a cache of forgotten pine nuts.

"About three years ago, a group of skiers went into one of the higher elevation sites and went right down the middle of it," Johnson said. "I had to offset the measurement that time. But we still got good data."

He made short work of the measurements, coming up with an average snow depth of 6.4 inches, representing 49 percent of average. The snow water content was 1.6 inches for 55 percent of normal. The average depth at the end of December is 13 inches, with a snow water content of 2.9 inches.

The deepest snow on record since the measurement began was 52 inches in 1952. There have been six times when no snow was found at the site during the late-December measurement.

"Although we are well below normal right now, we could catch up in a month," he reiterated.

In fact, light snow was falling in Medford late Tuesday afternoon, and the National Weather Service office at the Medford airport was expecting more snow through the last days of 2009 at higher elevations.

Before hiking back to the road, Johnson stopped to look at the survey site, surrounded by incense cedar, pine and fir trees, all lightly frosted by Mother Nature.

"I like it out here," he said. "It's quiet. It's away from the office."

Tuesday presented relatively comfortable conditions for a winter day on the mountain, he noted.

"This site is easy to get to," he said. "When you have two feet of new snow overnight and it's hard getting into the area, storming while you're doing it, it can be a real challenge."

For Johnson, who learned to ski in the Sierra Nevada range when he was 4 years old, any day measuring the winter snow is a good day.

"I'll probably be doing this for a couple of more years — we'll see what happens after that," he said. "Even when I retire, maybe I'll volunteer to do it."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.