Dust off the Easton’s and grease up the mitts: the 2011 Yukon slo-pitch season is officially underway.

Believe it or not, the inaugural game took place on a Sunday afternoon last month in one of the territory’s most northerly communities.

In Dawson City, smack dab in the middle of the Yukon River.

The “River Ball Challenge” as it is known has actually been taking place annually in Dawson for the past five years and has become a must on the calendar for both slo-pitch and social diehards alike.

Stemming from the theft of a front desk phone at the Downtown Hotel, the game is a tradition for Dawsonites on both sides of the river.

John Bryant, a West Dawsonite resident and co-organizer says the game was built from the intense rivalry that developed several years ago between members of the West Dawson summer slo-pitch team and a team of players made up of Downtown Hotel staffers.

“One night a couple of our players decided it would be a good idea to steal their phone, laughs Bryant as he recalls the prank. “They (the Downtown team) were really pissed off and certainly did not like that.”

So that winter a challenge was issued for the differences from the summer league and the phone theft to be settled by way of a winter game, with the infamous stolen phone being an integral part of the trophy awarded to the champions.

Thus was born the annual river ball challenge.

The challenge is similar to most slo-pitch games, with the only obvious difference being that it is played in the winter and the field is not grass but a frozen river.

“It really depends on how the river has frozen each year,” says Bryant, when explaining how the exact location of the diamond differs from year to year. “The gauntlet is usually thrown down at the end of March when the ice is still at a safe thickness.”

Like any traditional game, the river challenge includes three bases and a pitcher. But that is where the standard aspects of slo-pitch are thrown out the window.

Snow pants have replaced the traditional pin-stripes, toques are worn instead of hats and Sorels instead of cleats.

As for hits, there are no guarantees.

What would typically be a triple usually ends in just a single.

“It’s not easy trying to trudge your way from base to base through waist-high snow,” explains a player.

That said, sometimes a hit no further than the infield can turn into a double or triple as the fielders frantically dig through the snow to find the buried ball.

And while there is an apparent desire from both sides to win the game and claim the season’s bragging rights, it is obvious there is much more other importance associated with the river ball challenge than who wins or loses.

Like a plastic sled full of beer, the occasional snow angel and the customary post-game snowball fight.

Like the Sourdough Rendezvous Festival and Thaw Di Gras the “river challenge” is viewed as a sign that winter may finally be over and spring could at last be on its way.

Note: After failing to win in the game’s first four years, the “Townies” finally defeated the West Dawson Stranglers to win this year’s River Ball Challenge by a score of 7-2.