Retrofitted: Greg Gutzki’s original Snurfer

Greg Gutzki remembers the exact moment he heard about snowboarding, only it wasn’t known as snowboarding.

On Christmas Day in 1966, the Michigan native and his younger brother came downstairs to an odd-shaped gift beneath the sparkling tree. The contraption was about 3 feet long and no wider than two skis, made of painted yellow wood with a single rope attached to the slender nose. The tail was entirely flat and the base was ever-so-slightly tapered, like the keel of a small boat.

The two youngsters were blown away. It was a Brunswick Snurfer, invented just a year earlier by fellow Michiganite Sherman Poppen, whose wife combined “snow” and “surfer” to give his hand-built toy a catchy name. Within a few months he’d partnered with Brunswick — yes, the bowling and billiards company — and by Christmas the Snurfer was flying off the shelves.

The Gutzki boys didn’t know it on the chilly holiday morning in Eaton Falls, but they were about to ride the prototype for modern snowboards, now a multi-billion dollar industry. It had no bindings, no edges and just a rope for steering, but that hardly mattered. The Gutzkis came from a family of skiers — mom and dad took them on regular trips to Cadillac, Michigan, to ski with their grandparents — and the youngsters were ready to take their new toy down a snowy hillside just above the house on their 10-acre farm.

“You have to realize, the slopes of Michigan are generally not very snowy,” Gutzki said when I met him at his home at the base of Baldy Mountain. “They’re icy, and you really need a little snow just to get going on this thing. You had to pull back on the rope to hold on. I think that original rope broke the first year so I went to the barn and replaced it with this.”

Gutzki stopped reminiscing and showed me his retrofitted Snurfer rope, which is still attached to the original board. Like the vintage Dartmouth ski boots in his bedroom, he’s held onto the little, yellow slice of winter-sports history since that chilly Christmas morning. Now 63 years old, he has the energy of someone half his age — or just someone who’s chased snow for most of his life — and remembers vividly just how tricky it was to get good at Snurfing.

“It was made by Bunswick and that thing had just about as much control as a bowling ball,” he said, showing me the rounded edges on the base of the board and the faded, browning patch where the Brunswick logo once was. “You never really got good at this. You just pointed it downhill and went. This thing was just a Christmas present, something to play.”

He also remembers how quickly the hobby turned into a sport, at least in Michigan. For a few years in the late ‘60s, Poppen’s hometown of Muskegon hosted Snurfer races. Gutzki never saw the races in person, so he’s not sure if riders rounded gates or just barreled down the hill.

“It’s about like anything: How can we go faster? How can we hurt ourselves?” he laughed. “The icy slopes of Michigan were no place for a board with no edges. No place for anything with no edges.”

The iciness of his birthplace eventually brought him to Colorado, where in 1973 he started working odd jobs around Breckenridge before launching a chairlift painting company in 1980, High Country Coatings. He’s been with the company ever since, traveling the Rocky Mountain region to ski resorts in Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah and, of course, Colorado.

Did the Snurfer lead to a lifelong love affair with snowboarding? Not quite, although he does have a 2004 Ride Theory 159 signed by JJ Thomas not once, but twice. Still, Gutzki prefers skiing and has plenty of old-school ski gear — “Everyone up here has an old pair of skis sitting around,” he said — including just about every ski pass he’s ever had and a pair of Miller Soft skis, a noodly model that was one of the very first powder skis in the ‘80s.

“My passion is snow,” Gutzki said. “I just love snow. I grew up in snow, have always been on the snow, and I don’t think I’ll leave it.”

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