ATHENA - Brian Pickard is the product of a sports-minded family firmly rooted in a basketball-crazy town of about 1,200 tucked into the Blue Mountain foothills of Northeastern Oregon.
So it's no surprise that the 1992 Weston-McEwen graduate excelled in football, basketball and baseball here during his high school years. Nor is it any wonder that he rose to become head coach of the TigerScot boys basketball program, a position he has held since the beginning of the 2008-09 season.
What might surprise many outside the family circle is that Pickard's first love has nothing to do with any of the traditional team sports.
Given his druthers, the 36-year-old Pickard would rather be tramping through grasslands or picking his way through tall timber, awaiting the explosion of a grouse or pheasant taking flight, or scanning the horizon for the silhouette of a deer or an elk on a distant ridge.
It is a passion that has gripped him ever since his father Eric first took him bird hunting "about as far back as I can remember," Pickard said.
"It was a family thing," he said of his beginnings as an outdoorsman. "I'd go hunting with my dad, my brother, my uncle, my cousins. More than anything, I just liked being in the outdoors."
And though he enjoys companionship when he's in the wild, he doesn't mind solitaire sojourns, either.
"I go with friends, I go with family, but I don't mind going by myself," he said. "Once in a while it's nice to go by myself."
His first kill, Pickard remembered, was a grouse during one of his early outings with his father. But it didn't take him long to realize that big-game hunting was his true calling.
"I like all kinds of hunting," he said. "Grouse, pheasant, deer, elk. But I like elk hunting the best. And I don't know exactly what attracted me the most.
"It's later in the year. It's colder, and I like the cold weather. And there's just something about them ..."
He shot his first elk in the Tollgate area when he was "about 15 or 16," he said.
"He was just a spike," Pickard recalled. "It was opening morning, and we had seen them the night before. We got out there, and they were feeding on a hillside. It was about a 250-yard shot, which is about the average."
In the years since, Pickard has gotten his elk nearly every year. And he's been successful during the deer season as well when he has been lucky enough to draw a deer tag.
"I've gotten 13 bulls in the last 14 years," he said of his elk hunting success. "You usually don't draw a deer tag every year. I've been lucky about every other year, and I usually get one."
And Pickard emphasized that his hunting ventures are not purely for sport.
"You go because you like to go," he said. "And you go because of the meat."
Nevertheless, he has some trophies that he is proud of.
"I have taken one elk that is in the state record books, and one deer," Pickard said.
The 7-point elk antlers measured 357 inches by Boone & Crockett scoring, and the whitetail buck, a non-typical 7-9-point rack, measured 151 inches. Head and shoulder mounts of both hang on the walls of Pickard's Athena home.
Likewise, he has a couple of bear skin rugs in his home. And he has a life-sized cougar mounted and stored because his wife Robin - they were married about seven months ago - "doesn't want it in the house."
"I've hunted bear a lot in the fall," said Pickard, who has bagged five black bears. "It's a good way to spend time looking for deer and elk. And if you spend enough time out there, you are going to see bear."
Pickard shot his only cougar in 1998 while hunting elk in the Tollgate area. "I just happened to have a cougar tag," he said.
"You see more and more cougars now that they've banned hunting them with hounds," he added. "It was pretty exciting."
Hunting is an expensive hobby, Pickard conceded, and most of his adventures have come within a 70-mile radius of his home base in Athena. But in the summer of 1991, between his junior and senior years of high school, Pickard became friends with Ernie Finch, a senior-to-be from Anchorage, Alaska, and that led to even greater adventures in the years to come.
"We played on the same all-star basketball team that went to the British Isles," Pickard recollected. "We spent a month together talking about hunting and being outdoors, and we kept in touch."
And when Finch came to the Lower 48 to attend college at Grays Harbor Community College in Aberdeen, their friendship became closer.
"He spent one Thanksgiving with us, and we did a little hunting together," Pickard said.
Then, in 1995, at Finch's invitation Pickard made the first of many trips to Alaska.
Finch owns and operates Alaska Wilderness Safaris, a company that guides hunters from all over the world on wilderness excursions in pursuit of moose, caribou, dall sheep and brown or Kodiak bear.
For Pickard, they are working vacations. He helps out as a packer and wherever else he's needed, and his personal hunting endeavors have been limited to bagging a pair of caribou.
"There's only been four or five years since 1995 that I haven't gone," Pickard, said. "You are about 70 or 80 miles from civilization, and the only way you can get in there is by air."
Camp amenities include three tents and a wood stove, Pickard said.
"And this is usually in September," he said. "It can be sunny and in the 50s, or it can snow every day and be in the 20s. But that doesn't bother me, never has."
Pickard also spent two months one spring in Alaska gathering up moose antlers that the animals had shed. And this proved to be a lucrative stay.
"You can sell them up there," Pickard said of the sheds. "And there's also an antler rendezvous in Jackson, Wyo., every May. A lot of them go for artwork and chandeliers. Carvers will buy them."
The average antler weighs between 15 and 20 pounds, Pickard estimated, and his group collected more than 3,000 pounds that spring. And the best antlers sell for up to $15 a pound.
Pickard said he has never felt in danger hunting in the Blue Mountains. But one experience in Alaska momentarily unnerved him.
"We were picking up antlers, just walking down the trail, and about 30 yards in front of us out stepped a brown bear," he related of an unexpected encounter with an Alaskan Kodiak. "She stood up on her hind legs trying to figure out what we were. We were carrying sidearms, which probably would have stopped her, but we whistled and yelled and she finally ran off.
"It's something you have to be aware of," he added. "The brush is so thick, they can be on you before you know what's going on.
"I know my first thought was, ‘That's a really big bear.'"
Pickard hopes to one day add a brown bear to his trophy collection.
Likewise, he still hasn't bagged a moose or a sheep, two more good reasons to maintain his Alaska connection.
But now that he's married and a father - Reagan Pickard was born June 21 of last year - Brian's mobility may become more limited. Then again, maybe not.
"My wife enjoys camping and hunting, and my daughter seems to like it, too, not that she has a lot of choice right now," Pickard said. "But we've taken her with us camping three or four times already."
Pickard got into coaching 11 years ago when he became the assistant basketball coach under Dwayne Dunlap at Helix. After four years in that role, he came home to Weston-McEwen as Scott Pumphrey's assistant.
And when Pumphrey stepped down at the end of the 2007-08 season, Pickard was handed the TigerScots' reins.
Weston-McEwen logged a 10-14 record and missed the playoffs in Pickard's first season but improved to 17-10 last year, earned a share of the Blue Mountain Conference championship and won the district title. The TigerScots lost in the first round of the Oregon Class 2A state playoffs.
This year's TigerScots are off to an even better start - 7-1 in the BMC, 13-4 overall going into tonight's showdown with second-ranked Enterprise in Athena - and Pickard's goal is to get Weston-McEwen back to the state tournament in Pendleton for the first time since 2003.
Pickard's high school athletic accolades include all-conference honors in football, basketball and baseball, and all-state recognition in basketball. To that end, he was simply falling in the footsteps of his father.
Eric Pickard was a four-sport standout at McEwen High School in the late 1960s, a time when athletes were allowed to participate in both baseball and track and field during the spring.
Brian's mother, Linda, was an all-league volleyball player during that same time, as was her younger sister Susie Ellis. And Linda's two brothers, Bob and Dick McMillan, also excelled in athletics at McEwen High during the early 1960s.
Pickard's grandfather, Bob McMillan Sr., remains something of a legend in Athena.
He coached the high school's first boxing team in the 1940s and helped get the girls basketball program off the ground in the early 1970s. And he kept the boys basketball scorebook - home and away - from the late 1940s until shortly before his death in January of 2009.
Though his love of hunting and the outdoors have always been paramount, there was never any question in Pickard's mind that his high school years would be devoted to the family tradition of team sports.
"You only have four years to play high school sports, and that took priority over (hunting) at that time," he said. "There was never an inclination not to play. That was my own decision and there was no doubt.
"The window to play sports is so small, it's something you have to take advantage of when you have the chance. It's something that I tell my players now. The window is small and the chance to go on is slim, so enjoy it while you can."
You can hunt and enjoy the outdoors your whole life. Which is exactly what Brian Pickard intends to do.