A misty dawn broke when James Kleinhans, Josh Norris and his children Eddie and CJ and Margaret Keating School student Ruby Ross dipped their fish into the river and set off.

Cradling the wooden salmon under their arms and joined by Chrystal Helton and her boys, the runners legged it from the mouth of the Klamath River, through the sacred dance site of Wehl-kwew to the bridge that was washed away by the flood in 1964.

There they met Brandy Rodriguez, her son Mateo and Peyton and Erin Nomura and ran the fish to U.S. 101, over the new bridge to Waukel overlook.

By the end of the first 10 miles of the Klamath River Salmon Run on Friday, more than 35 people gathered at Roy Rooks, snapped a quick group photo and passed the fish onto a boat that ferried them upstream to runners at the old village of Wautec.

"I let the fish lead me when I run," Helton said, who began participating in the Klamath Salmon Run in 2008. "Honestly, sometimes it's really emotional. Usually, I cry ‘cause I'm just thinking about the state of the natural world and it weighs really heavy. It's like I'm giving the fish strength and they're giving me strength."

The wooden fish served as batons in this long-distance relay that led from the mouth of the Klamath River to Weitchpec and up the Klamath and Trinity rivers. Hoopa Tribal members would end their journey at Trinity Valley Elementary School where students will join the run and end the day with a parade in Orleans, according to a joint press release from the Karuk and Yurok tribes.

Runners wending their way up the Klamath River would spend Friday night in Happy Camp and reach Iron Gate Dam on Saturday morning, said Macy Bommelyn, one of the organizers.

The Klamath River Salmon Run was founded by students from Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District in 2003 in response to the September 2002 fish kill, according to Bommelyn.

In a 2003 analysis, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated that a combination of abnormally high water temperatures, low water flows and overcrowded conditions in the river led to the deaths of about 34,000 endangered coho and chinook salmon in September 2002.

On Friday evening, members of the Karuk Tribe planned to join Yurok runners for a celebratory dinner before journeying to Iron Gate, one of four dams on the Klamath River slated for removal, according to the press release.

For Josh Norris, who began taking part in the Salmon Run since 2006, the relay isn't just to retrace fish's odyssey to their natal streams, it's to celebrate the Yurok Tribe's heritage as runners. They follow a network of old Indian trails alongside the Klamath River, he said.

"They do relays to deliver messages or to trade from one village to another," Norris said. "The relay is an ancient tradition."

Bommelyn said the run is about sending a message.

"To bring the salmon home," she said. "We're taking them home to all of our people."

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com .

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