Brent McGregor has been a key member of expeditions exploring glacial caves. photo by Craig Rullman
Brent McGregor has been a key member of expeditions exploring glacial caves. photo by Craig Rullman

Brent McGregor came to Oregon for the junipers, he says, but stayed for the adventures.

At 63, he has climbed every volcanic peak in the Cascades, topped all three Sisters in under 12 hours, explored into the deep reaches of Central Oregon's extensive network of lava tubes and, most recently, along with his partners at Glacier Cave Adventures, has become a world-famous explorer and photographer.

As a young man growing up in San Diego, Brent felt drawn to the wilds. In his 20s, he spent a year living in a canvas teepee in the raw wilderness of Alaska, where he made his own clothes, hunted his own food, and ran a sled team with 18 dogs.

"I had a dream when I was 8 or 10 years old, to go the wildest wilderness I could find," he recalled. "I just wanted to go into a really wild place and to be there."

That dream eventually brought him to Central Oregon, where he has built furniture out of juniper, as Rocky Mountain Furniture Products, for 30 years. He was attracted to juniper, McGregor says, because the round forms of the natural product were more interesting to him than traditionally milled productions.

Brent's appreciation for the character revealed in juniper trees is revealed in his photography of the glacial cave systems he explores. Exploding with light and form, the pictures remind one of the best photographs of exploding nebulas in space, and his work has recently been featured at Maptia.com's "46 Places To Fill You With Wonder For 2016," an anthology of "the most talented photographers on the planet."

McGregor's team, Glacier Cave Explorers, has completed three expeditions to the Sandy Glacier on Mt. Hood since 2014, mapping, photographing, and recording the constantly changing conditions inside 7,000 feet of passages, now understood to be the longest glacial cave system in the Lower 48.

And because of the constantly shifting environment inside, McGregor notes that his photos will survive as "the only pictures of that time period." The team's efforts at documenting these changes, and collecting data inside the strange and shifting underworld of ice, rock, and water, first of their kind, have drawn interest from the National Geographic Society, and NASA scientists, who have found evidence of predatory microbial life in the ice core samples Brent's team has collected.

Data ice from core samples the team collects are extremely valuable scientific records, Brent says, "like rings in a tree," which can reveal evidence of environmental conditions over long periods of time.

Other discoveries inside the glacier include fir tree seedlings that have traveled through the melting ice for years, fallen into the caves, and begun sprouting in the total darkness, and species of extremophiles, organisms that have adapted to live in the extreme environment found inside the glaciers.

Conditions inside a glacial cave, Brent notes, are brutal, and even with modern equipment he and his team are often reduced to "basic survival mode."

McGregor's focus on caving comes less from a sense of adventuring than "a passion to investigate what we are driving over." And he knows that the work he and others are doing inside the caves is a valuable addition to the study of the world's vanishing glaciers.

"If they are melting and going away," Brent says, "something is wrong."

True firsts are rare in the rapidly shrinking modern world, and that fact alone puts Brent McGregor's hard-won discoveries, and the beautiful photographic record he is making of them, in rarified air. It is not a leap to suggest that the work McGregor and his team are doing will one day rank with the first expeditions to find the source of the Nile, or Powell's first travels into the mystery of the Grand Canyon - a significant addition to the time-honored traditions of exploration, discovery, science, and conservation.

McGregor will present "Mysteries Beneath the Ice" at the Belfry on February 10, at 6 p.m. The presentation will document the first five years of The Sandy Glacier Cave Project, through narration, stunning photographs from inside the cave system, and video of the expeditions.