Michigan, the Home of Snurfing

Buzz Snow
Buzz Snow / Buzz Snow

If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home.

This week we’re off to the split state of Michigan to learn the origins of one of the most popular “X-Treme” sports in the world.

On Christmas Day 1965, in Muskegon, Michigan, a very pregnant Nancy Poppen had had enough. Her daughters, Wendy and Laurie, were rambunctious and excited about the festivities of the day, but it was time for Mom to get a little break. Nancy turned to her husband, Sherman, and asked him to get the girls outside to burn off some of their energy.

The girls wanted to go sledding on the foot of freshly-fallen snow, but Sherm couldn’t find a sled in the family’s garage. So he dug out a couple of kids' skis, and fastened them together with a few pieces of wood and nails. Sherm had intended for the girls to sit on the skis like a sled, but they opted to stand and “surf” down the snow-covered dunes instead, inadvertently inventing the sport of snowboarding.

Nancy, clearly the marketing genius of the family, came up with the name “Snurf,” a contraction of “snow” and “surf,” and urged Sherm to keep working on his design. By the time he was ready to apply for a patent in March, his “Snurfer” was a single board about 8 inches wide, with a rope attached to the upward-curved point in front for additional control. To keep the feet in place, two anti-skid treads took up most of the surface.

Sherm licensed the board to Brunswick, which released the first Snurfer in 1966. By 1968, the first National Snurfing Championship was held in Muskegon, where Ted Slater and Sally Waite were awarded first place in the men’s and women’s divisions for both downhill snurfing and the slalom. The tournament was held annually in Muskegon until 1980, when a lack of snow meant a change of venue to the Pando Ski Area near Rockford, Michigan. The Pando Ski Area wound up being better suited for the growing popularity of the event, so it continued hosting the tournament until 1985, when there were so few contestants the event was cancelled and never recovered.

Obviously, snowboarding didn’t die with the end of the Snurfing Championship; the sport has since gone on to become a multi-billion dollar industry enjoyed the world over, and has been an official Olympic sport since 1998. The boards and equipment have evolved over the years, but they all share a common ancestor with an impromptu invention made by a father trying to give his pregnant wife a little peace and quiet.

To mark the birth of snowboarding in Muskegon, Michigan, a statue called “The Turning Point” was erected in 2012. The monument is a 14-foot tall ribbon of snow with Wendy Poppen at the top riding her original Snurfer, and a modern snowboarder finishing the run at the bottom.

Have the scoop on an unusual person, place or event in your state? Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States!

See all the entries in our Strange States series here.