RUBY -- Locals gathered Friday afternoon atop a knoll overlooking the frozen Yukon River and waited for the next Iditarod musher to make his or her way into town.
Without knowing exactly which team it could be, they had already checked off the leaders, Lance Mackey, Jeff King and a handful of others.
Would the next be Martin Buser, the four-time champion from Big Lake?
Or maybe Paul Gebhardt, trying to move up from last year's second-place finish?
Perhaps fan-favorite DeeDee Jonrowe, the top woman racing this year?
But making his way up the hill was a perennial back-of-the-pack musher who is surprisingly in contention for a top-10 finish.
"Is that Jim Lanier?" someone asked.
Indeed, it was the 67-year-old Chugiak resident, the oldest musher racing in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. His team of white huskies charged up the hill and parked next to the Ruby Bible Church. They were the eighth team here, looking strong, with all 16 in harness.
Lanier took a deep breath, securely stomped his snow hook and walked the length of his gangline, tossing frozen blocks of energy snacks to each dog.
"Never felt better, had less or wanted more," said Lanier, content with his standing coming into Ruby. "I've been a lot worse in terms of misery."
Raised in North Dakota, Lanier moved to Alaska in 1967 for a job with the U.S. Public Health Service as a pathologist. He started racing dogs 10 years later and dreamed of racing the Iditarod with veterans Ron Gould, Jerry Riley and Dinah Knight.
In 1979, Lanier finished 43rd in his rookie Iditarod and was hooked. This is his 11th race, and he has slowly become competitive.
By the sound of his voice Friday, Lanier has seemingly developed into Iditarod's version of a fine bottle of red wine.
"I'm getting better with age," he said. "A slow learner, I guess."
He couldn't crack the top 40 in his first five Iditarods and in 2001 wound up 49th. But he placed 25th the following year, 24th in 2003 and a career-best 18th in 2004. The next two races he slipped back into the 40s, but he rebounded last year with his third top-30 finish.
A year ago, he retired after 40 years at Providence Alaska Medical Center. But retirement is a sensitive word in his home. He's shifted gears into training his Northern Whites Kennel for the 1,100-mile Iditarod.
"Maybe this is my profession?" he said. "I've been retired a year, so I have no more excuses. If I can't do well now, I don't know when I will."
This year everything seems to have clicked for the old hand. And so far, he's garnered the attention of his colleagues.
Zack Steer of Sheep Mountain was floored when he arrived here and saw that Lanier's team had been resting for hours. Normally, old-timers like Lanier make enough mistakes by this stage of the race to be out of contention for top 20.
Lanier typically starts off blazing before losing gas. But not this year -- at least not yet.
"It's pretty impressive," Steer said Saturday in Galena. "He always makes the classic mistake of going out too fast. Mushers tease him about it every year. But he's holding on so far."
How long will his magical ride last?
"Give him some time," Steer said, adding that Lanier could still mess it up. "I wouldn't put it past him."
Ed Iten of Kotzebue is impressed, too, by the energy reserve of Lanier and his canines.
"Normally if he has problems, he'd have them by now," Iten said. "He's having fun and sure doesn't look that old."
Lanier is the oldest in this race and threatens to join race founder Joe Redington and former Interior musher Charlie Boulding as another 60-plus musher with a top-10 finish.
But he's not the only graybeard in this race. Kotzebue's Louie Nelson, 65, is also in the hunt for top 10. So is 55-year-old five-time Iditarod champion Rick Swenson.
In fact, Lance Mackey and Kjetil Backen are the only mushers younger than 40 in the top 10 as of Saturday evening.
"This is a neat race from a spectator standpoint," Steer said. "There's a lot of different things happening this year."
Steer pointed out that his kennel partner, Robert Buntzen, could crack the top 30 with their puppy team. Steer expects the 57-year-old doctor to pass him in the next couple of days.
"He's no spring chicken either," Steer said.
Steer, 34, is running with dogs from three different kennels. He admitted Saturday in Galena that he doesn't have the chemistry of last year, when he finished a career-best third. He carried Antelope for 30 miles on the Farewell Burn and Dori for 50 miles out of McGrath.
Steer compared his nearly flawless run last year to the run Lanier is experiencing this year.
"He's clicking," Steer said. "He's making all the right choices, and he's so far ahead that I probably won't see him anymore."
Lanier's all-white team blends in well with the environment. Collecting white dogs started 15 years ago when he accidentally bred two white dogs that produced a large litter. White is a recessive trait, which means white dogs have no color genes.
Now it's become an obsession to have nothing but white dogs. Any dog with spots is sold or given away.
"He won't even bleach them," Steer said.
Resting in Galena on Saturday was Mirror, a Lanier dog running in Ray Redington Jr.'s team. Redington also has Waylon, whom he dropped earlier in the race. Lanier sold Waylon to the Wasilla musher for the usual reason.
"He had spots," Redington said.
"I just thought it would be fun (to run an) all-white team," Lanier explained. "So I either got white dogs or bred white. That's who we are."
A decade ago, Col. Norman Vaughn, the oldest man to run the Iditarod at 88, helped Lanier name his sugarcoated dogs the Northern Whites Kennel at a New Year's Eve party in Trapper Creek.
So with 16 dogs that look alike, how does the musher remember all those names?
"My handler put their names on all the collars," Lanier said.
Find Daily News sports reporter Kevin Klott at adn.com/sports/kklott.