Jason Adams of Grants Pass prepares to dive underwater while dredging for gold at the site of the old Savage Rapids Dam. - Jim Craven

Summer brings out gold lust on Rogue

Gold fever first struck Grants Pass resident Tony Marchisella on the banks of a Georgia river more than 20 years ago. An old miner flashed his pan at Marchisella in the summer of 1988 and suggested the younger man try his luck under a large tree limb resting in the water.

"I found me some gold and that got me hooked. It'll be 20 years in August," said Marchisella. "When I started, gold was worth $200 an ounce. Today it's $1,250 an ounce."

Today Marchisella is sporting a wet suit and prospecting in the Rogue River just upstream from where Savage Rapids Dam was removed. Judging by the size of his operation, the now 47-year old has infected his family and friends with his lust for the glittery dust.

Between 10 and 15 people were panning, sluicing and diving for gold under sultry summer skies Tuesday afternoon. Susan Smith drove cross-country from North Carolina to join her family members on the Rogue River. Jimmy Fuller, a friend from Livingston, Texas, is prospecting for the first time.

"It's all really fun," said the 64-year old. "And hard work, too. I'm just getting a feel for it."

Fuller sported hip waders, but said he isn't ready to go diving for gold.

"I don't go under water real good," he said with a laugh.

Marchisella's son, Julius, is an experienced member of the crew. The 17-year old said he wears up to three wet suits to protect his lean frame from the river's cold, rushing water while using one of the floating dredges to suck gravel from nooks and crannies under large boulders.

The largest single piece of gold Tony Marchisella has found in two decades of searching was a 2-penny-weight nugget the size of his pinkie nail.

That was years ago. But the Savage Rapids site is giving up plenty of gold dust and "pickers," he said.

"They call 'em pickers because they're smaller than nuggets. But you can still pick 'em up," said Julius, adding the Marchisella crew has sucked up a lot of lead shot, glass, trash and other metals.

"We've found bags of fishing lures. And even some socks," the teen said.

Panning for gold by hand does not require a permit. Permits are required for those utilizing motorized equipment which can be used only on the wetted perimeter of the waterway, said Bob Lobdell, natural resource coordinator for the Oregon Department of State Lands.

Dredging season opened on the Rogue River June 15. It will close on Sept. 15. Dredges must be 4 inches in diameter or smaller. No dredging is allowed in the state's scenic waterways, Lobdell said.

DSL and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality require the permits to help ensure the protection of essential salmon habitat, Lobdell said.

Marchisella said, "We dot our I's and cross our T's" when it comes to permitting.

Allen Dole of the Grants Pass Irrigation District said Marchisella and his group appeared to have all their permits in place. Dole said he'd been asked to inform the group on Tuesday that they were prospecting on GPID property.

"We're not asking them to leave at this point," Dole said. "We're just letting them know this is private property."

Boundaries for riverside property owners remain in question as the state's new navigability laws wind their way through the courts, Lobdell said. "But if they have to access private property to get to the river, then they have to have permission of the property owner," he said.

Marchisella's group is camping upriver on private property about a quarter mile from their mining site on the Rogue with the permission of the owner, Marchisella said. They have pitched a large blue tent on a small island in the river which can be seen from their campsite. That tent houses Marchisella's five dredges, air hoses and other equipment when the crew is not actively hunting gold, he said.

"That way we don't have to lug everything back to our campsite each night," he said.

The gear totals a $10,000 investment, Marchisella said.

"So far we've already got 50 percent of it paid off," he said.

The dredges suck up gold-laden gravel, which is then dumped into the upper end of metal sluice boxes. A steady flow of water carries the material the length of the box. Lighter gravel and sand are carried off by the flow. Heavier materials which may contain gold drop to the bottom of the box and become trapped in the sluice box's riffles. This material is then panned.

Marchisella tips his sniffer bottle and squirts a small quantity of water along with previously sifted black sand, gold dust and several "pickers" back into a mining pan and gives it a swirl. Glimmers of gold quickly come into view. But some of the tiny gravel flecks have a grayish film over them.

"That's mercury," Marchisella said. "Mercury is like a gold magnet. It's the only thing that will stick to gold."

Marchisella said he often finds pickers covered in the highly toxic metal. Through a distillation process, he will heat the gold to more than 400 degrees, which will cause the mercury to vaporize, Marchisella said. The fumes will then waft up tubes and go through cold water where the mercury will resolidify, he said.

"And we dispose of it," Marchisella said. "We just store it away."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail

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