Susan J. Bennett (Jenny), disappeared June 1st 2015, Body Found June 8th 2015, Lester Prong area of Greenbrier, above campsite 31, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Jenny Bennett, aged 62, was an experienced hiker in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a member of the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club and the author of a popular blog called "Endless streams and forests" in which she documented many of her hiking outings and illustrated them with her photography.. She also wrote two fiction books based in the Smokies. A 2014 book, "The Twelve Streams of LeConte" and "Murder at the Jumpoff" in 2011. Jenny also wrote an ongoing Wordpress blog called "Endless Streams and Forests"
On March 31, 2015, Jenny decided to leave North Carolina and move to St. Johnsbury, Vermont due to her desire to live nearer to her sister in Massachusetts. Those who knew her described her as being excited by the move. She had located a home to buy. She was supposed to have moved out of the house in Sylva by Monday, June 1, 2015. A prospective renter who came to the house found boxes but no trace of her or her car. Her landlord and brother contacted authorities and she was subsequently reported missing to park rangers on Sunday June 7th.
There were few hikers tougher than Jenny Bennett. She took on any challenge in the Smoky Mountains. She had hiked many routes that most hikers don't know, and would not attempt even if they did. She developed a knee problem in 2012, in which the knee would periodically dislocate and she would force it back into place, then continue with the hike. Ultimately the knee problem became nearly unbearable, and she concluded that an operation to correct the condition would be required. Nonetheless, Jenny kept on with the big hikes as long as she could.
After Jenny's inspiration and mentor in the 1980's, Charlie Klabunde, passed away in February 2015, Jenny organised an outing on March 22, 2015, to pass the Jumpoff on the Smokies' Boulevard Trail, then descend into Lester Prong to a spot to disperse Charlie's ashes. Jenny made it from Newfound Gap to the beginning of the descent from Boulevard Trail, but her knee gave out yet again, and she could not continue. She returned to her car and back to Sylva, while the remainder of the group continued on and completed the memorial as Jenny wanted. That she could not accompany the group to do this for her beloved mentor was tough for Jenny.
For many years Jenny did off-trail hikes in the nearby wilderness and often on her own. Her blog had its last post on May 27, about hiking in the Balsam Mountain area, following trips on May 24th and 27th. She had an undeniable sadness about leaving the mountains she so dearly loved. She was having a hard time saying goodbye to the Smokies, and the many memories they held for her.
Friend and fellow hiker Peter Barr said at the time "She was one of the most experienced off-trail hikers that I knew, and she knew the backcountry of the Smokies as well as anybody. That was absolutely her passion, exploring all of the creeks and slopes of the Smokies and particularly in the Greenbrier area.". Barr got to know Bennett through an online group interested in off-trail hiking. He met her for the first time during a hike in the Greenbrier area. "Jenny was a really strong hiker but could also talk off-trail exploration for hours and hours and hours," he said. "She was really fascinated with every single creek and every ridge in the Smokies and in that particular region of the park had hiked almost all of them."
Her car was quickly located at the Porters Flat Trailhead on June 7th and then Jenny's body was found about 9:30 am the next day in the Lester Prong area of Greenbrier above campsite 31 in the Smokies. Strangely, she was found by park rangers in a sitting position in Porter's Creek with her head resting on rocks.
The autopsy report from the Sevier County Medical Examiner’s Office concluded that Jenny had died of environmental hypothermia due to cold exposure from partial submersion in the creek. She also had bruises on her right hip and elbow consistent with a fall. However, she did not have any internal or musculoskeletal trauma. In addition, the coroner reported she had a toxic level of the anti-histamine drug, diphenhydramine, in her blood which was considered a significant contributing factor in her death and pointed towards an intentional overdose.
The death of Jenny Bennett is very disturbing and sad. She seemed to be optimistic about starting a new life in Vermont but at the same time sad to be leaving the Smokies behind. Was she sad enough to take a toxic overdose of an antihistamine? Did her knee give out again, causing her to fall in Porter's Creek and freeze to death? She often went hiking alone, off-trail but this can be very dangerous in the rugged terrain of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. What happened to Jenny in May 2015 will never be clear but certainly she was an amazing lover of the outdoors.