RUBY -- Aliy Zirkle dropped her snow hook here Friday just long enough to leave a dog, Viper, and hand out a hat.
"Thank you Aliy!" said Ruby resident Martha Ann Wright, 73, who held the beanie bearing Zirkle's SP Kennel logo to her parka. "I'm proud of you, because women got to get out there back in the front."
"We gotta at least try, don't we?" Zirkle replied.
The first woman to win the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest, Zirkle is making a bid to become the first woman since Susan Butcher in 1990 to win the Iditarod. She has been a pacesetter for much of the 2012 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. She thanked the village and sped away for Galena, 50 miles down the frozen Yukon River, in first place.
Defending champion John Baker of Kotzebue took note.
"The best move that's been made since the race started is the one that Aliy did by going through here," Baker said as his dogs rested in Ruby. "It will actually be pretty difficult to pick up time on her."
Mitch Seavey, the 2004 Iditarod champion, is trying. He and Zirkle are playing a game of leapfrog, and Friday night Seavey vaulted ahead of Zirkle by pushing past Galena. He spent 12 minutes at the checkpoint before departing at 9:20 p.m. Zirkle was due to leave at 11:53 p.m., at the end of an eight-hour layover.
Racers are required to take an eight-hour break somewhere along the river. Seavey and the other top contenders selected Ruby, where the race meets the Yukon. By pushing ahead to Galena for her mandatory rest, Zirkle reduced the number of stops she'll need to take on the river, Baker said.
For the leaders, the 975-mile race is more than halfway finished. At the beginning of the race, mushers dutifully make their way up the trail, in hopes of emerging here with as few injuries and mishaps as possible. At the end, the Iditarod is a battle of sleepless gambits and counterattacks.
Let the head games begin.
Dallas Seavey, who reached Galena at 9:24 p.m. Friday, four minutes after his dad left, is a student of tactics. During his layover in Ruby on Friday, he deconstructed the strengths and weaknesses of each team.
Baker's squad of thick-haired Kotzebue dogs can make long runs on little rest. He victimizes teams that lack endurance, Seavey said.
"My strength is I would rather get longer rest but I can move fast when we do move. So we're exactly opposite," said Seavey, 25. "My dad's caught somewhere in the middle, but he has the advantage of being the one actually in front."
Baker and the Seaveys all took their eight-hour rests in Ruby, a hillside Athabascan village where mushers arrived overnight under twisting green northern lights.
Race judge Rich Bosela said Zirkle, the 2000 Yukon Quest champion, told him her team's experience with the long runs of the Quest gave her the confidence to push ahead. The Two Rivers musher is running many of the same dogs that came within seconds of winning the recent Yukon Quest pulling Zirkle's husband, Iditarod veteran Allen Moore.
"She's our new leader in the Iditarod race," Bosela said. "They'll be hopscotching back and forth, depending on who decides to rest longer. Certainly, if she takes her eight hours in Galena, she's going to see some teams passing her as she's parked."
Another musher to watch is Aaron Burmeister of Nenana. The 36-year-old finished seventh in the 2009 Iditarod and has been training in Nome. He was headed to familiar territory Friday with a full 16-dog team that finished the long run to Ruby brimming with energy.
"They're very powerful. They're fired up. They're feeling good. Just came in here off a 16-hour run and they look like they just woke up. They're feeling great. The team's really coming together nice right now," Burmeister said.
In sixth place Friday night was four-time champion Jeff King.
"I believe I have a chance to win this race," he said. "I'm not sure the guys in front of me are racing the right people."
"Last year ... it was (four-time champs Lance Mackey and Martin Buser) busting out in front, racing each other. And they ended up blowing the hood off and somebody behind comes in," he said.
In other words, it would be dangerous for the Seaveys to wear each other out and open a lane for distance runners like Baker or Zirkle.
The Seaveys arrived in Ruby with vastly different demeanors. Dallas practically jogged between his supplies and his sled, relishing in strategy talk. Mitch, grim with frustration, said he'd hoped to gain ground by forgoing stops. The plan backfired.
"My team is tired. I have a rest deficit of several hours," he said.
The long, restless run to Cripple took its toll, he said, describing a notion familiar to all top dog mushers: Sometimes only a gamble will get you the crown.
"You can play it real cautious or you can go to win. I've always been really cautious and I've always been in the top 10," Seavey said.