One of my enjoyments that spanned the season this year started as I watched my 15-year-old grandson, Ian, shift from skis to a snowboard and work to master his skills. By spring he had gotten pretty good.
Then in July, Ian was on a board again — two weeks on a windsurfer at Duxbury Bay Maritime School, where he learned tacking, jibing and became ever sure-footed as he learned about handling the sail and turning his weight placement into speed.
When news broke in early August that 89-year-old Sherman R. Poppen passed away in Steamboat Springs, Colo., the equation clicked in my mind. Of course, surfing on snow was inevitable. It just took Poppen, a skier himself, to recognize this fact and invent the new product.
It had been in his mind for a while, according to Poppen’s late first wife, who witnessed the original board’s rapid development. It occurred Christmas 1965, when Poppen attached his daughter’s skis together to create, in his view, a surfboarder who surfed on snow.
Like a surfer, there were no bindings, no way to attach feet to board, as the later version of snowboard would develop. And though he was something of a jokester — as remembered by family and friends — Poppen’s creation was no whim.
“As far as snowboarding goes,” said John Dakin, a spokesman for the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum, “he was a true visionary. Today’s snowboarders owe him a debt of gratitude for the movement he helped to jump start.”
Snurfing did catch on as a sport in the late 1960s and into the ’70s after the Brunswick manufacturing company then partnered with Poppen to produce the Snurfer and get on the shelves in time for Christmas 1966. But the board was not categorized as sporting equipment, instead as a toy.
Still, with Poppen’s enthusiastic efforts to develop Snurfing, it caught on and the boards improved. A small metal skeg was fit to the board, solving the problem of riders being able to steer them. When, by 1968, Poppen organized the first world Snurfing competition, a young Vermonter, Jake Burton, already was an enthusiast of surfing the mountain and had worked on some ideas of his own.
Working as a bartender back east at Stratton Mountain, Burton became seriously devoted to developing what became the modern snowboard. Burton worked on shape and bindings, then went to Poppen and asked if he could purchase the Snurfer name.
Poppen’s daughters, Julie and Wendy, remember one of their dad’s great regrets. “Jake Burton wanted to buy the name Snurfer, but he wouldn’t sell to Burton,” recalled Wendy. “That’s my biggest regret, because then it would be called Snurfing instead of Snowboarding.”
Three decades later, of course, boarding has become almost as big as skiing itself, and in fact, boosted the sports equipment world during a down market for skiing. Little by little the resistance to boarding faded, and now only a couple of areas — Deer Valley in Utah and Mad River in Vermont — don’t allow boarders.
Except for in regions of Russia, the Snurfer all but disappeared in the 1980s, and Poppen himself became a snowboarder at age 67. In 1995 he was inducted into the Snowboarding Hall of Fame in Banff, Canada, and he is now dubbed the “grandfather” of the sport.
Poppen also was known for his philanthropic works in several communities he touched. In Muskegon, Mich., he built a business, Lake Welding Supply Co., and when it was time to move on, he sold it to all the employees, guaranteeing substantial retirements for all. For that and other works, he was inducted into the Muskegon Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame. That same year, the town unveiled a sculpture “The Turning Point” to honor Poppen with his fame as the Snurfer and also his many civic achievements.
“He was a really fun dad,” his youngest daughter, Julie, told the Steamboat Pilot newspaper. “Not so much the camping and wilderness stuff, but more like sailing, running, tennis and skiing. He was a very high-activity kind of man.”
Poppen was known for showing up at snowboard conventions with his skis. “Everyone else would be snowboarding, and he’d be skiing. But he was the big star, made all the speeches,” daughter Wendy told the Pilot. “One year they said, ‘Sir, we love you so much and want you to keep coming. But you cannot use skis next year, you have to come with a snowboard.’ ”
“So at age 67, what did he do?” said Wendy. “He taught himself to board.”
Of course he did. At an age when lots of guys are opting for hot tubs and card games, Sherm Poppen was exploring a new sport. That passion of the “Grandfather of Snowboarding” endures and is apparent every winter day at pretty much every resort on the planet.