Fairbanks, AK - At least six Fairbanks-area Yukon Quest mushers will wear wristbands during this year’s Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. The hand-made bracelets are part of a fundraiser to support for a man in Massachusetts who is battling Cancer.
Will Huggins is a homebuilder and carpenter in Mattapoiset, Massachusetts 15 minutes from Cape Cod.
In 2008, the 41 year old was diagnosed with colon cancer. Doctors removed six inches of his colon. Afterwards, he had chemotherapy. Then, a year and a half ago, Doctors found spots on Huggins’ liver.
“Which caused me to have a pretty major surgery where they removed about 75 % of my liver," explains Huggins, "and also my gall bladder with a half a dozen procedures that went along with it.” Today, he estimates he’s about 75 percent back to normal, despite a staggering financial burden brought on by the high cost of health care and a lack of insurance.
So, what does this all have to do with the Yukon Quest? Well, long time Quest volunteer, Ryan Hughes grew up with Huggins. “We were childhood friends I think as far back as maybe second grade or so." Hughes smiles.
Hughes lives in Fairbanks. He spends lots of time with local mushers Brent Sass and Mike Ellis. When he heard Will Huggins was sick, he wanted to find out if they could help. “I was home this summer and was able to go to one of the fundraisers and just kind of jumped on board," he says. "Friends are important to me.”
If you’ve been to a Quest-related event recently, it’s very likely Hughes has asked you to wear a handmade brown and white bracelet. That’s how Fairbanks musher Paige Drobny ended up with hers. “It’s on an elastic band with brown beads and there’s letters on them that say ‘I WILL,”" Drobny describes her bracelet. "The family that started this, the guy who started this, his name is Willy Huggins and so it’s kind of a play on his name but it’s sending a positive message out to you know positive thoughts. I will finish the Yukon Quest or I will do whatever I put my mind to.” Drobny will wear her bracelet in the Quest 300 and the Iditarod this year. Her husband, Cody Strathe will have one on as he runs his team in the 1000 mile Yukon Quest. The bracelets sell for ten dollars. Proceeds go to help Huggins and his family. Some of the money is also paid forward to others who’ve found themselves in similar situations.
A group of friends in Massachusetts get together to make the bracelets and fill orders at local businesses and online. “It’s been awesome. I’ve heard stories about like – well, you guys out in Alaska and other parts of the country. It’s really spread and it’s really an awesome thing, it makes me feel amazing," says Huggins.
Word of the bracelets spread mainly through social media. Pictures on his facebook page show an always smiling Will Huggins. He has three children. “When I was a kid, my parents sort of left me," says Huggins. "I was raised by my grandparents and I made a commitment to the universe that I would never ever leave my children and there I was faced with the universe taking that promise away from me and at first I could barely look at my children, I was so ashamed, but I’ve sort of gotten past all that now. The children in my family are the main thing that keeps me fighting and staying positive.”
Musher and fellow cancer survivor Lance Mackey will also wear an ‘I WILL” Bracelet during this year’s Yukon Quest. Via Text message, Mackey says he and Will Huggins have a lot in common.
Before Ryan Hughes got Interior Alaska’s mushers on board, Huggins didn’t know anything about sled dogs or the Yukon Quest. But the two friends say once Huggins’ health is 100 percent, he’ll come north, preferably to watch the start of the Yukon Quest. "I think someday in my near future, I’d love to get uot and see Ryan and give it a go," Huggins says. "My ultimate goal," explains Hughes, "is to get Will Huggins and get him on a sled you know!"
Will Huggins says he’ll follow along as 26 teams make their way down the Yukon Quest trail between Whitehorse and Fairbanks. The race starts Saturday.