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Backstage to Backwoods

Later this month, Theatre of Youth’s Ken Shaw will hike 122 miles to raise money for local arts institutions

Kenneth Shaw has trekked up mountains, scaled rocky terrain, and hiked for seven weeks straight to raise money for one of his life’s biggest passions. But despite having already walked 562 miles to raise money for the arts, the accomplished hiker will add 122 miles to his distance traveled for charity starting on July 21.

For about nine days Shaw will hike through the Adirondacks on the Northville-Placid Trail to raise money for Give for Greatness, an organization that helps financially support cultural organizations in Western New York. Shaw calls this hike “Backstage to Backwoods: The Sequel,” as it is an extension to feat he accomplished two years ago, when he made his way through the Catskill Mountains to Allegany State Park, raising over $12,000 for Theatre of Youth, where he is head of design. Shaw hopes his current efforts will raise around $10,000 for Give for Greatness.

Shaw has combined his two biggest passions to answer his self-proposed question: “How far are you willing to go, and what are you willing to do to personally help an organization or something you believe in?”

When Shaw saw funding cuts to art programs in Western New York, he was surprised by the reaction of some who weren’t involved in cultural programs. Shaw heard many people claim that artists “just expect handouts.” He felt most people didn’t understand how hard artists work, and the lengths to which they’re willing to go to raise money for their organizations.

“I decided I was going to be a person that wasn’t just standing around with my hands out saying, ‘Give money to the arts,’” Shaw says. “I was saying: ‘I’m willing to walk 600 miles for the arts. What are you willing to do?’ That’s what drives me.”

Shaw has built his life around theater. As a child in Toronto he was an actor, but he eventually realized his calling was in costume and scene design. After studying at the National Theater School of Canada and the International Theater Institute in Prague, Shaw eventually settled in Buffalo, where he has been the head of design for Theater of Youth for 16 years.

While theater and the arts have been a focal part of Shaw’s life since childhood, his love for hiking is relatively new. He has only been backpacking for the last three and a half years. Shaw’s interest was sparked by reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Before that, he had hiked and camped, but he began to understand that backpacking is completely different. While camping, you’re typically a car-ride away from whatever you may need. In backpacking, he points out, if you don’t carry it, you simply don’t have it.

“Backpacking is much more a journey than it is a destination,” Shaw explains. And that journey shouldn’t begin as soon as you step onto to the trail. For his upcoming trek, Shaw has spent hours preparing and organizing his itinerary with much appreciated help from the Finger Lakes Trail Conference. Because the hike is on an organized trail, there are plenty of available maps over which Shaw has pored to figure out what the journey entails.

Shaw admits the 562-mile hike he did in 2010 could have been better organized. He recalls one day in that 40-day adventure when he decided to keep going after getting to a checkpoint early. Because he was overly excited, and overly anxious, he got stuck climbing a mountain after a 10-hour day of hiking.

While Shaw doesn’t plan on getting himself in a rough position like that again, there is a day in the upcoming trip on which he plans to hike 16.2 miles, finishing with a 3,000-foot elevation change, leaving him walking uphill for about a half hour. “That day is going to be a killer,” Shaw says.

That first long-distance hike was a learning experience for Shaw. He now realizes he doesn’t need to hoard clean water, but can filter whatever water he comes across as he walks to make it safe to drink. But the lessons he learned go beyond hiking technicalities.

“You learn all the things you can do without,” Shaw said. “I don’t even just mean in hiking—I mean even in life. We think so much about our possessions and we think so much about things we want and need and have to have. You realize after a while, you just don’t need most that stuff.”

His iPod and Kindle won’t make it into his backpack this time around. But he will have the company of his two dogs, Gracie and George. “They may make it. They may not. I have no idea,” Shaw jokes. In fact, Shaw is certain Gracie will be able to handle the hike, as she soldiered through 400 of the 562-mile trail in 2010.

Shaw acknowledges that hiking and the arts may not really seem to fit together at first glance, but points out that it’s no different than someone running a marathon for medical research. When he decided to become a long-distance hiker, he also decided to tie the pursuit to supporting the things he cares about most. He suggests that he may plan a hike to raise money for an animal shelter in the future.

Shaw describes hiking as leaving him inspired—and to him, doing it for the arts makes perfect sense.

“If you personally don’t believe enough in what you’re doing to go to some great lengths to support it,” he says, “then you yourself should question why it is you’re doing what you’re doing.”

Shaw isn’t sure how much money has been raised for Give for Greatness so far, but insists no donation is too small. Donations can be made per-mile or at a flat rate at

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