Tales from the Tread: The Snurfer — snowboard predecessor now on display
November 3, 2015
Combine the words snow and surfing and you get "Snurfing." This is exactly what Nancy Poppen did in 1965, when her husband, Sherman Poppen, presented a handmade Christmas gift of two skis fixed together to his 10-year-old daughter.
The stand-on-top double ski was an instant hit among Poppen's family and friends. Poppen recalled in a 2009 Steamboat Pilot & Today interview, "They just had so much fun. It's a good thing it kept snowing that winter."
As the snowy Michigan winter of 1966 progressed, so did Poppen's invention. Poppen built a wide wooden board with an upward sloping nose and later added a rope to the nose. By March 1966, Poppen had acquired a patent on the design, as well as a trademark and copyright on the word Snurfer. He then licensed his invention to the Michigan toy company, Brunswick.
The Snurfer was in production for 15 years, and about 900,000 boards were sold, making it one of the most popular toys of the 1960s. Poppen eventually moved to Steamboat Springs and took up snowboarding at age 65.
In the late 1960s, two Utah boys caught the Snurfer fever. Howard Sorensen and Robert Patterson used their Snurfers on the steep, powdery mountains of Utah.
Sorensen recalled, "The Snurfer was not meant for icy conditions, as it had no edges. It worked best in powder, which is exactly what we had."
The two riders took their boards all over the Intermountain West. Grand Targhee was the only resort that allowed Sorensen and Patterson to ride the lift; everywhere else, they hiked up and Snurfed down.
"As we began to jump with the boards, they would simply fall away, so we added our own leather straps, usually out of our own elk hide, since it was plentiful to us," Sorensen said.
Sorensen and Patterson captured their Snurfer riding on film. After seeing the footage, Poppen said the riding was remarkable and was the earliest known powder-riding he had ever seen. (Check out the video on Museum's website: treadofpioneers.org)
In the late 1970s, using Poppen's design, snowboard innovators such as Jake Burton, Tom Sims, Chris Sanders, Dimitrije Milovich, and Jeff Grell began developing the snowboard, bindings and boots as we know them today.
Through a partnership and loan from the Alf Engen Ski Museum in Park City, Utah, three of Sorensen and Patterson's Snurfers, as well as the original Snurfing film footage, is currently on display at the Tread of Pioneers Museum for the winter.
The exhibit features a first-generation Snurfer with heavy-duty staples that served as foot traction and the second generation Snurfer, which featured the added homemade leather bindings. Also on display are Sherman Poppen's shop drawings and Howard Sorensesn's Snurfer riding clothing.
The Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through, and it is free to all Routt County residents.
Katie Adams is curator of the Tread of Pioneers Museum.