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Winters Past

As you listen to the blades scraping the frozen surface of the Hudson River, your mind pictures the ice yachts flying by at 80 miles per hour. You can feel the cold settle in your bones as you listen to John Sperr talk about the history of the pastime he adores.

Winters Past interviewee John Sperr often sailed his boat on Hudson River ice. Today, there are fewer opportunities.

But what you’re hearing isn’t necessarily what you’re seeing; it’s a soundwalk, providing commentary, audio, and interviews that anyone can download to their smartphone or iPod and listen to while taking a stroll.

“If you have a good imagination, you can listen anywhere,” says Isaac Kestenbaum ’03, co-creator of Winters Past with spouse Josie Holtzman ’06, though their first soundwalk was meant to be heard while strolling on the Walkway over the Hudson, a pedestrian bridge that stretches from Poughkeepsie to Highland. The couple—both audio producers—spent part of their summer, fall, and winter working on the soundwalks, with plans to release more soon. 

“They’re all about winter and how it is changing due to climate change,” Kestenbaum says. “The next one is about ice harvesting.”

In early 2013, Kestenbaum and Holtzman applied for and received a grant from San Francisco-based Invoking the Pause to work on their project, Winters Past. The non-profit funds creative collaborations highlighting climate change.

John Sperr, an avid ice yachter and member of the Hudson River Ice Yacht Club, next to his ice yacht.

“We were doing most of our interviews in the summer, so we met with John Sperr on a 90-degree day up in Rhinebeck, in his house with the air conditioning on,” Holtzman says. “It was actually kind of a testament to how powerful the experience of ice yachting is to him. We were worried it would be kind of hard to put people in the place of winter to recall it. I think it was more potent for him because it was this insanely hot day and he was still able to speak so poetically about the sport and wintertime, and what it means to him, and how much it has changed.”

People used to sail ice yachts—think of a long, thin sailboat on skis—on the Hudson River all throughout the winter, Kestenbaum says. Taking a look at the river now, you can see how it wouldn’t be impossible to ice yacht on it—at least not yet.

“One of the scientists said that there has sort of been a general decline in our expectations of what normal is,” says Kestenbaum, who is a production manager at StoryCorps, an oral history non-profit.

The second soundwalk is broken up into several vignettes of about 3-5 minutes each, creating an audio album of winter memories, says Holtzman, who is also a sound artist and former producer for WNPR’s Where We Live.

The third release, scheduled for the end of January, focuses on ice harvesting at Bantam Lake in Connecticut. Once the site of the Berkshire Ice Company, which harvested the ice blocks that trains would take directly to New York City, the lake now has only the remains of foundations that used to support enormous ice warehouses and workers’ dormitories.

As with the Hudson River, Bantam Lake has seen lots of winter changes, Kestenbaum says. Where the ice was once 10-12 inches thick during the season, it now might top out at five inches, he says.

The soundwalk for the trip details information about the lake, ice harvesting, and the remains of the once-thriving business.

“Sometimes, we’ll ask the listener to stop or close their eyes, or slow their pace, so there’s some type of direction,” Holtzman says. “When soundwalks work, imaged worlds and histories sync up with what you’re doing.”

The first two soundwalks are approximately 35 minutes long, she says.

“People just love to talk about [winter memories]. There’s something about the wintertime that just brings everyone back. It brings up childlike awe and engagement with the natural world,” she says.

For each soundwalk, the duo has to research and record background sounds. For instance, there wasn’t any ice yachting going on when they interviewed Sperr in the summer, so they needed to find audio recordings online, Holtzman says. Then, there are the interviews with individuals that are recorded and edited, as well as the commentary. The idea, she says, is to provide a layered, cinematic treatment to the soundwalks, giving them a high quality.

To make the process more daunting, Holtzman and Kestenbaum were planning their wedding while creating Winters Past.

“We had the privilege and the task of planning a wedding and also figuring out how to work together for the first time. It’s been a lot of fun and I think we learned about ourselves and each other,” she says. “We realized we’re a good team.”

To listen to a Winters Past soundwalk, visit

--Photos by Isaac Kestenbaum ’03, John Fasulo, and C. Pujols.

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, January 22, 2014