Snowboarding: Born in Muskegon

Sherman Poppen created the Snurfer. Courtesy Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame.

MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Sherman Poppen says he had a problem on Christmas Day 1965. His pregnant wife Nancy wanted some peace and asked him to take the couple’s two daughters out of their Muskegon home.

At first Poppen tried to take the girls sledding down the dune behind their house, but soon found that the sleds were digging into the snow. He took a pair of kids’ skis and fashioned a brace, he bolted the two together added a rope and started snurfing. His wife coined the word “snurfing” because it was like surfing in the snow.

Word spread through the neighborhood quickly, every kid wanted to snurf. Poppen had friends who were engineers at Brunswick.

“I was just fortunate at that time that Brunswick was looking for a retail type product,” said 83-year-old Sherman Poppen. “By Christmas of 1966 we had them in production and they were going out as Christmas presents.”

What followed was a series of annual competitions, some drawing hundreds of spectators to the Blockhouse at Muskegon State Park. They ran all through the seventies and all the while Poppen knew he was on to something big.

“They were so much fun, particularly in deep snow that we would crack a pop and talk about it and say you know this is too much fun one day it is going to be in the Olympics,” said Poppen.

At the time he thought idea was a fantasy, but the events drew a competitor named Jake Burton who took the Snurfer idea and added ski-type bindings and ditched Poppens control rope.

Though there is much debate about what really happened, most agree Burton’s innovations and promotion of the sport are what built the sport to its current level.

Today some of Poppen’s first Snurfers are on display at the Muskegon Winter Sports complex. Others are in the care of the Smithsonian Institution. A 14-foot statue in Muskegon across the street from the LC Walker Arena commemorates Poppen’s contribution.

He says the figure at the top is his daughter Wendy, one of Snurfing’s first heroes. In 2001 he was inducted into the Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame.

Poppens says the rewards he has reaped from the invention are not financial.

“I am just glad so many people are having such a good time, it certainly solved my problem on Christmas Day 1965,” said Poppen.

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