WITH its breathtaking lake views and snowy mountain backdrop, Canada’s Highway 16 is one of the world’s most picturesque roads.
But this 837-mile route through British Columbia strikes terror into the hearts of millions after a spate of unsolved murders.
To them it is known simply as The Highway of Tears – the hunting ground of a prolific serial killer.
The only hint that it is any different from any other stretch of road in Canada are the Missing Person posters stapled to lampposts.
Towns are far apart and there are long stretches of road that appear deserted.
Sometimes the radio fades out and mobile phone reception is patchy at best.
Logging roads split off everywhere. If someone has bad intentions, they will find a victim.
A killer can go off and drive for an hour and throw a body into a ravine and it would never be found, admits one official involved in the hunt.
More than 40 young women, many of them hitchhikers, have vanished along the remote route in the past 30 years.
Most disappeared on desolate stretch linking Prince George and Prince Rupert.
“Someone is preying on these women without anyone standing in the way.
"It has left everyone terrified to travel alone,” one worried resident tells local TV reporters.
Missing: Madison Scott is the last person to vanish on the road
“It’s very frightening that a predator could be out there for that length of time.”
Local Vikki Joseph adds: “Everyone knows someone who has a daughter or sister or aunt who has gone missing around here.”
According to Inuit leaders, victims of the mystery Highway 16 killer also include men and at least one family.
Many were from their communities, where hitchhiking is common.
The killer’s reign of terror started in 1969 when the battered body of first victim Gloria Moody, 26, was discovered. She had gone out to a bar but never came home.
Fifteen-year-old Monica Ignas vanished in 1974 while hitchhiking along the highway and her body was later discovered in a gravel pit.
In 1988, Alberta Williams, 24, was found dead a month after disappearing.
The killings escalated in 1994, when three 15-year-old Inuit girls were all killed over a six-month period.
The bodies of Ramona Wilson, Roxanne Thiara and Alishia Germaine were all dumped by the roadside.
For years the Mounties were accused of not doing enough to investigate.
Angry locals claimed detectives ignored the disappearances for years because only Inuits were involved.
They say attitudes only changed when white tree-planter Nicole Hoar, 25, vanished in 2002.
She was last seen thumbing a lift near a petrol station in Prince George and has never been seen again.
“It could just be that some sick people up there realise that women hitchhiking alone are easy picking,” says Chris Freimond, spokesman for the government-funded Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, which has held a series of hearings into the disappearances.
In 2004 a task force called Project E-Pana, named after a God in Inuit mythology, was set up to look into the slayings.
Last year it added another victim to its list. The most recent case involves Madison Scott, 20, who vanished after attending a lakeside party.
She was last seen at 3am on May 27 at Hogsback Lake, 15 miles from her town of Vanderhoof.
The suspected victims and where they were found
Detectives quickly found her tent and truck but no trace of the pretty student.
Dismissing suggestions she simply fell victim to Canada’s harsh wilderness, her parents are offering a £65,000 reward.
“After a long and difficult year there has been no real evidence of what happened to Maddy,” says her aunt Sandra Kelly Klassen.
“Someone knows where she is but they have not come forward with the truth.”
The number of women who have gone missing along the stretch stands at 18, according to official sources.
But Inuit leaders in the remote part of the country put the figure at 43, with many coming from their own community.
Despite the terrifying chain of disappearances and murder, the best lead so far came from a 20-year-old woman who escaped an attempted kidnapping last April.
A man had flagged her down on the side of the road in a Dodge pickup truck with flashing emergency lights blazing.
When she got close to him, he tried to bundle her inside, but she struggled free and called the police.
She gave police a description of her attacker – an elderly man with long white hair – and they released a sketch of the suspect.
But still no arrest has been made.Previously, in 2009, it appeared the Mounties had got their man.
Hundreds of officers raided a house in Isle Pierre, close to Highway 16, following a tip-off.
The property was once owned by Leland Switzer, already behind bars for killing his own brother. But a major search failed to turn up anything.
Frustrated at the lack of progress in the police case, some families have hired private investigators, yet still the disappearances remain a mystery.
Last February, more than 100 taxi drivers in Prince George gave DNA samples.
Again, the investigation drew a blank.
Madison’s family keep hoping and praying that she will turn up alive.
Police chief Lesley Smith said: “We believe there is information out there. The police need information, Maddy’s family need answers.”
So do the many Canadians who live with the Highway of Tears.