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If you snowboard, having a go on a “Snurfer” is the equivalent of teeing off at St Andrews. To the layman it may look like a humble 1960s toy but without doubt this is the precursor of modern snowboarding, and next year marks the 50th anniversary of its invention.
That moment is well documented. In 1965, Sherman Poppen, the owner of a company selling industrial gases and welding supplies, had been instructed by his pregnant wife Nancy to entertain his two young daughters in the snowy garden outside their house in Muskegon, Michigan. He took a pair of cheap children’s skis, bound them together and let his daughters jump on sideways. Nancy came outside and christened it “snurfing” – from “snow” and “surfing”. Soon Poppen found himself besieged by requests from local kids for their own snurfers, so he began refining his creation (including adding a rope to the nose) and in March 1966 filed a patent describing “a new snow sport which incorporates features of certain summer pastimes, namely surfboarding, skateboarding and slalom water skiing”.
Poppen’s Snurfer was licensed to two manufacturers and went on to sell more than 750,000 units; there was even a snurfing competition series. Most important, though, was that Snurfers found their way into the hands of a new generation of innovators, including a young Jake Burton, who together went on to develop the modern snowboard.
But the story doesn’t end there. Though the Snurfer had been consigned to history by the mid-1980s, the concept has enjoyed something of a resurgence in recent years. Hoping to recreate the fluid feeling of surfing, some snowboarders stripped their boards of the modern fixed bindings, creating so-called “no-boards” on which their feet could move freely, as with the Snurfer.
Next month, though, the story will go full circle, with the relaunch of an official Snurfer, endorsed by an 84-year-old Poppen himself. Vew-do, a Vermont-based manufacturer of balance boards, has snapped up the lapsed trademark and begun manufacturing Snurfers again.
In January, Poppen is due to attend Denver’s SIA Snow Show to kick off the 50th anniversary celebrations and “reintroduce the Snurfer brand to an entirely new generation of backyard enthusiasts”.
Photograph: Alex O’Brien