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Wednesday, 10 June 2015 14:30

Big boots to fill: Beloved backcountry trailblazer dies during solo hike

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fr hikerA wonderful writer. A fearless explorer. A fascinating person. An endless optimist.

That was Jenny Bennett, according to her sizable group of friends in the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. They’re all reeling this week after a missing person search in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park ended in tragedy when Bennett, a 62-year-old Sylva resident, was discovered dead in the Greenbrier area of the park. 

“There’s a lot of people who have hiked with her and done some really epic outings with her and had really great experiences with her, and we’re all going to miss her a lot,” said Chris Sass, 40, of Hiawassee, Georgia. “She was really one of a kind.”

Sass, also a member of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, shared Bennett’s love of off-trail exploration, and they’d gone on many a backcountry excursion together. Bennett had “a very quirky personality” and a wide array of personal experience and interests — a career writing about international coal markets had taken her everywhere from Brazil to India to Australia and more recently she published two novels — and a vast store of knowledge about the Smokies backcountry. 

It’s due to that knowledge — and its publication on her blog, www.streamsandforests.wordpress.com — that Greg Hoover first heard about her. At the time, Bennett was living in New England, and Hoover and his friends were looking for some pointers on off-trail hiking in the Smokies.

“We couldn’t find any real, helpful specifics except for a blog by some lady living in New England named Jenny Bennett,” Hoover said. “She had gone, many years ago, where very few had ever gone and even fewer had written about.”

A few years later, Bennett moved to Sylva — she’d lived in Knoxville for some years back in the 1980s — and reconnected with the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. In Sass’ opinion, there was no better person to have on a hike.

“We’d be crawling under this ridiculously thick vegetation and Jenny would find something either funny about the situation or she’d find some little bitty flower to focus on and shout out how great the place was,” Sass said. “She was a really great person to be out hiking with, for sure.”

“Her love of the mountains was transcendent,” said the hiking club’s president, Rebekah Young. 

She’d also give even the most hardcore hiker a run for his money. Greg Harrell well remembers the day he returned from a wintertime off-trail trek to a knob so remote he was all but certain he was the only person to have been there before. 

“Later that night I was putting my notes together and marking my changes to my map, when that nagging voice returned — I thought, ‘I have not checked Jenny’s blog for a while, wonder what she has been up to?’” Harrell wrote. “I clicked and was immediately met with a ‘na-na-na-na-na-I-beat-you-I-am-better-than-you!!!’ Blasted Jenny Bennett!”

“There is a generation of hikers that looks to Jenny Bennett as one that has gone before, one that has shown it can be done, one that proclaims ‘it is wonderful to see,’ and one that has experienced life fully — fearlessly,” he continued. 

As to what exactly happened leading up to Sunday, June 7, when Bennett was reported missing, or what event in the backcountry caused her death, it’s hard to say for sure. 

Bennett, who lived alone, was supposed to be settling into her new digs in Vermont this week, where she was moving to be closer to her sister. She should have been moved out of her Sylva apartment by June 1, Sass said, but failed to meet the movers on the appointed day. 

But no one actually reported her missing until her landlord, who does not live in Jackson County, heard from a prospective tenant who had gone by the place to have a look. But all Bennett’s stuff was still there.

“After some communication with the landlord and her brother, they found out she liked to hike and had a hiking blog she wrote on,” said Maj. Shannon Queen, spokesman for the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. 

Her car was gone from the apartment, so the Sheriff’s Office got a vehicle description and passed it along to the National Park Service. On Sunday, June 7, the park learned she’d gone missing, and they immediately started looking for the car, which they found about 7:30 p.m. that night. The backcountry search began at first light the following morning, around 6 a.m. By 9:30 a.m., they’d found her. 

Bennett was off-trail, about a half mile removed from campsite 31 on Porters Creek Trail. She hadn’t filed any kind of backcountry permit with the Park Service, perhaps indicating that she hadn’t planned on staying overnight. There’s no reason to suspect foul play, said Smokies spokeswoman Dana Soehn, but an investigation to determine cause of death is still ongoing. 

Sass has a guess about what Bennett was doing out there by herself. Earlier this year, a close friend of hers, a man who was also a member of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, had passed away, and she’d organized a memorial hike to scatter his ashes in a remote corner of the park. 

But along the way, her knee had popped out — an ongoing issue for Bennett — and she hadn’t been able to finish the trek to the place where his ashes were scattered. 

“My feeling is that right before she moved, she wanted to make one last trip to visit the site she wasn’t able to visit,” Sass said. 

As to what went so terribly wrong along the trail, it’s hard to say. Bennett’s knee issues were troubling, he said, and he’d seen her deal with them happen multiple times before when they hiked together. But while the onset had always forced her to refrain from hiking any further in, she’d always been able to hobble out on her own. 

Bennett had seemed happy and excited about the move the last time he saw her, Sass said. That was May 22, when he, his wife and a few other friends went out with Bennett for a goodbye dinner in Asheville. 

“She was talking about the various hikes she would be doing,” Sass said. “I knew she was looking forward to being close to her sister.”

With the news just breaking, it’s hard to believe that Bennett is gone. But perhaps not any harder to believe than the realities of her accomplishments as an outdoorswoman. 

“It’s funny that almost all the other people who do this sort of thing (off-trail hiking) on a regular basis are men, and she’s not only a woman but she’s kind of an older woman at that,” Sass said. “She was a really special person.”

“For a petite woman,” Hoover said, “she’s left us with some big hiking boots to fill.”

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