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Texas F Kamaka Hepa riding out pandemic at the top of the world

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The junior forward planned on traveling back home to Alaska for a two-week spring break in March. He’s been there ever since.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Oklahoma Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

Like a lot of people around the world, Texas Longhorns junior forward Kamaka Hepa had his plans upended by the coronavirus pandemic.

When the Big 12 tournament was canceled back in March and the Longhorns basketball season quickly came to an end with the cancelation of the postseason tournaments, Hepa decided to return home to Utqiagvik, Alaska, formerly known as Barrow. The northernmost city in the United States, Utqiagvik is only accessible by plane.

It’s not an easy trip, either — Hepa said it normally takes a full day to travel from Austin to Utqiagvik. He normally starts by flying from Austin to Portland or Seattle before catching a flight to Anchorage, the state’s largest city. Because of the length of those flights and the time change, Hepa typically stays there overnight before catching the final flight to Utqiagvik to end a process that typically involves nine or 10 hours in the air.

After Hepa arrived, the university made the decision to shut down campus. Since he lives in a dorm, Hepa didn’t have a place in Austin he could stay in if he returned.

Quarantine in Utqiagvik is both similar and extremely dissimilar to the rest of the world. Alaska wasn’t hit hard by coronavirus, particularly the upper boroughs on the state’s north side — there weren’t any cases in Utqiagvik — but gyms didn’t reopen in Utqiagvik until early May.

“It’s been really tough,” Hepa said of not being able to play basketball.

“So, basically we have all made reservations for an hour slot, but it’s been really good just to be able to shoot a basketball again. I mean, prior to that the only thing I was able to do were strength and conditioning workouts. As far as basketball goes it’s definitely something that I missed doing and, and something that I’m not going to take for granted ever again just because of the situation we’re in now.”

He called the nearly two months he went without shooting a basketball on a regulation rim the longest that he’s gone in his life.

“It made me realize how much passion I have for the game and how much love I have for the game and to not take that for granted,” Hepa said.

Besides strength and conditioning workouts that include running in the snow, what has Hepa been up to while he’s home?

Well, those are the areas that look a lot different from the continental United States.

There was still snow on the ground in Utqiagvik in mid-May and Hepa said that it was about 20 degrees with the windchill down near zero when he spoke with the media.

April marks the start of whaling season there, with Hepa estimating the catch at 12 whales in Utqiagvik. He hasn’t been out personally thanks to his school and internship obligations, but he described a process that still operates much like it did for his Inupiat ancestors.

Whaling crews are typically divided by family units who first break trail out on the ice until they navigate the icebergs and get to open water, where they establish their whaling camps. From there, the crews load up into their eight-person sealskin boats go whaling on the open water. Once they catch a whale, they pull it back to the camp and the other crews travel to that camp to physically pull the whale from the water by hand.

Missing the opportunity to join the whaling crews was a disappointment for Hepa since he hasn’t been a part of those expeditions since he’s been at Texas.

Instead of joining the whaling crews, Hepa has been participating in the some of the same recreational activities he enjoyed growing up, including snowmobiling and snowboarding. When he talks to Texas head coach Shaka Smart, Hepa doesn’t like to bring up the part about snowboarding.

“Yeah, I try to keep that away from him,” Hepa said.

Hepa is also undergoing training as an EMT, following in something of a family tradition. One of Hepa’s grandfathers, who was originally from Montana, ended up in Fairbanks working in a fire department. After hearing about Utqiagvik and its need for a fire department, he headed to the top of the world to become the city’s first fire chief.

In an effort to develop a routine while at home, Hepa applied for a college internship position and was placed in EMT training. The program starts off with CPR training, then ETT training as an emergency trauma technician, then fire training, though restrictions imposed by the ongoing pandemic will make it all more difficult.

“I definitely feel like it’s gonna help me a lot just to grow as a person,” Hepa said. “I feel like as college athletes we spend a lot of our time, pretty much year round, on focusing on our craft, which is very important, but I feel like now in these tough times that we’re in, I feel like it’s important to also grow outside of basketball, and I feel like this is just one way for me to be able to do that.”