Christmas morning 1965 was hard work for Sherman and Nancy Poppen of Muskegon, Michigan. Nancy was due to give birth to their third child in a matter of days and was feeling unwell, and as a snowstorm raged outside their two daughters, Wendy, 10, and Laurie, five, were, as Laurie later described it, “bouncing off the walls.” Having been instructed by his wife to get the girls out of the house and into the snow, Poppen first tried to get them sledging, but the layer of snow on the sand dunes near their home was too thin and their sledge didn’t work as the runners kept sinking into the sand. Then he had an idea. Taking a pair of Wendy’s skis, he nailed them together using small wooded battens at the tips and the tails, creating a single board that could be ridden sideways like a surfboard and could float over the surface of the snow. It worked. “We just went crazy,” Wendy recalled in a recent interview. “We were taking turns sliding, laughing.”
Poppen subsequently added a rope to the nose of the board, to help with balance, and in early 1966 he applied for a patent for his “Snurfer” – a contraction of the words “snow” and “surfer.” In the application, he claimed his invention was for a new activity that incorporated “surfboarding, skate boarding and slalom water skiing.” He might also have added that it would one day become one of the most popular sports in the Winter Olympics.
After being granted the patent in 1968, Poppen inked a deal with the Brunswick Corporation, a manufacturer of equipment for bowling alleys, to mass produce the boards. They went on sale all over America for $10 each, and among the first wave of snurfers was Jake Carpenter, who would later help snowboarding reach the next stage in its evolution by adding bindings, eventually going on to found Burton, one of today’s biggest snowboard manufacturers.
Poppen passed away earlier this month at the age of 89, following a stroke, but he is now remembered as the undisputed “grandfather of snowboarding.” Among the many tributes was an Instagram message from veteran freerider Jeremy Jones, alongside a recent picture of him riding a Snurfer through pinewoods near his Nevada home. “Thank you Sherman Poppen!” it read. “You brought so much joy to the world... The exhilaration of not being strapped in and the solitude of a backyard hill have me opting for the neighbourhood more and more.” With elite snowboarders increasingly choosing to experiment with bindings-free boards like the original Snurfer, it feels as if the wheel has come full circle.
The Sherman Poppen story has always been part of the snowboarding creation myth, but what really comes through reading and re-reading all the tributes and obituaries of recent weeks is how spectacularly unlikely it all was. What are the odds that a sport like snowboarding should be born, not in a mountain town in the Alps or a ski resort in the Rockies, but in some snow-covered sand dunes near Lake Michigan? What would have happened if Wendy and Laurie Poppen had been given a board game they really loved on Christmas morning 1965, and had spent the day playing happily indoors? What would have happened if Poppen had had his patent application turned down?
The biggest “what if” of all, though, concerns Poppen’s eldest daughter, Wendy. Once Poppen had made contact with Brunswick, he then had to persuade them that his Snurfer was a viable concept. His solution? Get Wendy to demonstrate it for them. She has described the scene as follows:
“My dad brings me like a little trained monkey, and all the suits are on this hill watching me. I had to slide down this hill and climb back up. Dad told me, ‘Keep snurfing until I tell you to stop.’ I went up and down like 15 times; it’s freezing out. The rest is history. He sold them the patent and they produced the Snurfer.”
In the years that followed, over a million Snurfers were sold. But what if Wendy had fallen on her first run? What if she’d fallen on every run? Or what if she’d played it safe and taken it reaaaaaaally slowly? If the suits from Brunswick had watched Wendy’s snurfing demo and concluded that this new sport looked a little lame, they might have decided to hold onto their cash and invest it in something else instead. And then where would the world’s snowboarders be? Skiing, probably, which doesn’t really bear thinking about. (Or waiting for somebody to realise that a kind of snowboarding had been going on in the mountains of eastern Turkey for generations.)
So yes, of course, thank you to Sherman Poppen for inventing the Snurfer, but kudos to Wendy, too, for convincing the suits at Brunswick Corp that it was an idea with a future.