How Wildfires and Covid Changed Our Lives Completely.
posted 01 Sep 2022 by Krister Axel
This one is written as a testimony to the power of family and personal conviction. We've given up a lot to get here, but we've gotten so much back in return.

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I've been wanting to write this for some time, and just this weekend after two years of craziness I feel for the first time like I have a moment for reflection. That probably sounds completely ridiculous, so let me back up.

The Back Story

Almost 2 years ago now, in the late summer of 2020, a few months after Covid was really taking hold of the country but where it also felt like there was a bit of a lull, we decided as a family to move from Oregon to New York. Somewhere in September we decided to re-list our house, which we had first attempted to sell (if I remember correctly) in late 2019; and this time, things came together: we sold to a woman—a retired professional chef, who probably appreciated the high-end BlueStar range that I 'splurged' on a few years prior—who herself was relocating from Palo Alto. Thus began our journey out east. I'm sure I have the dates wrong a little bit, but roughly speaking, we closed in November and spent a few months on the coast of Oregon saying goodbye to the ocean. In April of 2021, we arrived in St. Lawrence County and began our search for a home.

It was complicated, because at first we were planning on moving directly to Canada. But of course Covid continued to make that impossible, and from the summer of 2020 it hadn't been totally clear that Covid would continue to be a nuisance. I really thought that by the next year it would work itself out. I had applied and been accepted to a work-study program at Algonquin college (short side note: don't do that. Algonquin is a terrible college.) So at first we were just looking to tread water for a few months, and perhaps start shopping for a house in Ottawa for the Fall semester. But after that first Spring semester, I had serious doubts about whether finishing the program would be a wise investment, and it also became clear that the real estate market in both Ontario and Quebec was already expensive and getting worse. So we started looking around in Saint Lawrence County, specifically near Ogdensburg because at the time we thought we would need to preserve that proximity to Ottawa, and we found a few properties that were very attractive. This county continues to be very much affordable, certainly in comparison with insane markets like southern Oregon and anywhere in California, but even compared to places across the river like Ottawa. I will get into that more later, in terms of the value that is available here, but that figured in very heavily to our decision in the spring of 2021 to dig in with this location and make a life here. We actually had our first accepted offer on a property right in Ogdensburg, a beautiful house right on the river—but the sellers turned out to be basically horrible people, and after two months of stringing us along it became clear that they had no intention of closing. We were deep into our third month of hopping from hotel to Airbnb's and back again, and on a whim we decided to take a look at a farm property that had just come onto the market over here on the shores of Black Lake, just five miles (10 minutes) inland from the St. Lawrence river. We fell in love instantly, made an offer, and moved in barely a week later. The bones of this property were settled in 1830, with a rebuilt farmhouse and massive barn, along with 50 acres of lightly sloping corn fields. That was June of last year. We had finally arrived.

The Early Days

In the spring of 2021, I had no intention of finding a full-time job. I had just entered a two-year program at Algonquin college in Ottawa, and the idea was to transition into a full-time job somewhere in Ontario. This is why finding a property close to Ogdensburg was so important: because I needed, at least in theory, to be able to commute into Ottawa and back again every day if necessary. But again, Covid made that basically impossible, because throughout that entire year crossing into Canada from the US meant a 14-day quarantine was required, which was just a complete no-go for our family, especially because my mother-in-law was supposed to be able to come along. And after some very questionable experiences in the first semester, mainly in terms of teacher quality, it became clear that the program at Algonquin was not going to work for me. So by that summer of 2021 I had no intention of re-enrolling for the fall semester, and I jumped in with the idea of finding a way to monetize CHILLFILTR®—that also turned out to be a difficult proposition. If I've learned anything in the nearly 5 years that have gone by since I began this blog, it is that copywriting as an art form and blogging as a career are just not very lucrative in the modern economy. But I certainly tried, from that summer through the fall, to find a way to make it work. And my wife deserves a lot of credit for digging in with her contracting position, and for a while, carrying that burden of being the sole breadwinner for our family. But the truth was that we were losing money month over month, cutting into our savings, and it was just not a sustainable situation.

Just in Time for a Crypto Winter

My father had passed away in 2019, and two years later I I had some inheritance from him that I was using to fund the business. Things like the CHILLFILTR® trademark and some of the infrastructure that I still used to this day, were funded by the money he left me. But that nest egg was dwindling too, and in late 2021 it felt like crypto was headed for the moon. From October through November I became more and more enamored with the idea of Olympus style DeFi, and made the very unwise decision to put the rest of that inheritance money into a number of DAO tokens as a way of 'investing in my future.' Of course by December the bloom was off the rose, and from the list of six different DAO projects that I researched heavily and felt good about, all but one have completely vanished—my nest egg with them. Shout out to Wilder World for surviving the cryptopocalypse. But of course I still lost most of my value even there. That is a whole other story, something I will probably write about eventually when I can finally detach myself from the feeling of being an absolute sucker and the exquisite pain of squandering my father's legacy. Let's just say I have no more stomach for the DAO landscape, however well-intentioned, although I am still cautiously optimistic about utility-driven blockchains like Hedera hashgraph. But for a brief shining moment in late 2021, I felt good about my future, I was bullish on crypto in general, and I even launched a mildly successful NFT project that was derailed because of literally a single dissatisfied user on Telegram. By Christmas, it was hard not to feel like everything was over. So, thankfully I took a big step back and for that reason was completely unaffected by the huge crash that came in April of this year. But the damage had already been done. There is little comfort in knowing that the market crash didn't affect you, simply because there was no money left to invest in the first place. The first few months of this year were a difficult time for me, as I slowly came to the realization that finding remote work would be the only viable solution to our ongoing slow motion crisis of family finances. But after four years in the solo entrepreneurship space, it was not a trivial thing to come back to the professional job market, hat in hand, and explain away years of uncompensated copywriting.

The Job Search

I had built a long and lucrative career as a web developer on the premise that I could do anything for anyone, with a minimum of training, just because I'm a good problem solver and I'm always open to learning new things. That's what drew me to web development in the first place: the ecosystem of technologies in application development always seemed to move so quickly that it was more feasible to hire someone imaginative and diligent (like me) than it was to find a so-called 'expert.' But now, in my 40s, for the first time: finding employment was not a trivial thing. And my personal inclination towards developing new skills was all of a sudden creating a burden—I didn't want to just do what I had done before. As a deeply creative person, if I don't evolve, I die, and I just couldn't see myself getting back into full-time development as a Ruby on Rails specialist. It needed to be something new. So early in 2022, I made the decision to begin looking for work, and I jumped in with that. I trolled listings on LinkedIn, prepared customized versions of my resume, and sent out a few hundred applications. Soon the responses began to trickle in. There were a lot of no's, but here and there, was evidence of hope. Maybe I could reinvigorate my tech career and find something that excited me. I had an interview with Meta set up, which I prepared for over a number of weeks, but on a fateful day in early March, I got a call from a recruiter about a local job.

An Unlikely Match

A recruiter reached out to me on LinkedIn, and soon after we were talking on the phone about a local employer near Canton—just over 20 minutes from what was now the Axel farm. Because at the time I was really obsessed with finding a full-time position, the prospect of working as a contractor felt a little bit undesirable. So I highballed them on the rate a little bit, but when they came back to me with a compromise, it felt like a silly thing to say no to. So I said yes. After a one hour phone call with a few of what were soon to be my colleagues, it was barely 10 minutes later when the recruiter called me to say they were making me an offer. The money was good, the offer had been extended, and I was trusting my gut when I said yes. After a few weeks, it became clear that I had made the right decision. Corning and I had forged an unlikely bond. I did not think working locally was even a possibility, and I was—and still am—excited about the learning opportunities that I am offered. I have worked primarily in open source; Corning is a Microsoft shop. My expertise until now was with cloud deployments; Corning is forced to keep all of its servers on site. For years I spent the majority of my time head down, working in a git repo from my home office; now I was fielding service calls in a 50,000 square-foot manufacturing warehouse, swiping a badge as I walked through security every morning. What a difference a year makes.

So Here We Are

After selling our house, and relocating, trying and failing at monetizing my small business, getting crushed by the crypto market, and finally getting through months of job searching and interviews, I am finally back in a place where I can find the time to write about the things that I think are important. For those of you that have not been determined by such a long-winded and deeply personal account of my family's situation, allow me to finally get to the point. Why are we here? What made us move in the first place?

It's the Environment

I had spent a number of years researching the long-term prospects for different regions of the world mainly in terms of this emerging climate crisis. For a long time I was really hoping to move somewhere in France, but for personal reasons that are not worth getting in to, that was a dream that just never came together. Oddly enough, it seems that may have turned out to be a blessing, because many regions in France as well as all over Europe are struggling right now with a lack of precipitation and truly exceptional heat waves that will, most likely, continue to become worse. So ending up here in the thousand Island region of New York has turned out to be quite a blessing. Simply put, in terms of climate prospects over the next decades, you will struggle to find a region that is more well suited to the future than upstate New York. This region of Saint Lawrence county where we have settled benefits from milder winters than many other places in the state, has quite a bit less snowfall, and milder summers. I look forward to years of nurturing this farm into an escape for wildlife: from what was once 50 acres of corn fields we will be planting wildflowers, encouraging pollinators, and adding a lot of native trees to the landscape for help with water permeability, shade, and building a local micro climate. The water here is plentiful, and in terms of natural disasters the only real danger comes from flooding. Thankfully, the properties that we own now are all situated well above the waterline, so apart from falling trees due to high wind activity, we are in very good shape in terms of resiliency against future climate trauma. I can't really express how happy it makes me to be able to say that.

The Tradeoff

So, what was the trade off? What was lost in this transaction, so to speak? Well, coming from the West Coast, we were struck very quickly by the difference in culture. This region particularly of New York State tends to be a bit more to the right than we are used to, politically speaking, and in terms of city services and cultural institutions there is a bit of a gap, perhaps. There are not many restaurants nearby, and just in terms of population density it is very wide open. However, there are certainly upsides to that: there is just really is no traffic here which was something that I completely normalized when I was living in Los Angeles, for example. The land is beautiful, the seasons are distinct and colorful, we have fireflies and chipmunks and frogs and chickadees, monarch butterflies and turkey vultures and foxes and coyotes. It just goes on and on, I don't think I've ever felt as connected to my environment as I do now. But the most important thing for me is that sense of safety. When we lived in Ashland, I was constantly in fear of wildfires and smoke. Now I can breathe easy: both literally and figuratively. If we've learned anything over the last year or two, it is that this is the driving consideration of our age, so to speak: climate migration will continue to grow, and feed communities around the world that are deemed 'climate havens.' I have seen many communities in the US labeled that way, from as far west as Dubuque, to Buffalo, and across Lake Champaign from us in Vermont and New Hampshire. This wave of immigration is really just getting started, so I take that as comfort that perhaps we are pioneers in that respect. I hope that over time, the things that we are missing a little bit in this region will start creeping in. Honestly, we are just a few restaurants and a few coffee shops and just one nice block of mom and pop retail shops away from paradise, at least in my view. And, set as we are between a huge lake and one of the biggest rivers in the world, we will not be running out of water. This sense of resiliency against further climate risk is part of what attracted us to this region; and being within 90 minutes of Ottawa in about two hours from Montreal, was also a big factor.

The bottom line is this: I honestly spent the last decade trying to figure out where to go to have the best chance at a comfortable future; the way I explain it to friends is that here in the north country, we are ahead of the problem. If it gets warmer every year, so be it. We've got water, and wildlife, and nature, and affordable real estate. This is a place where we can settle down, as a family, and let the kids run around the yard and play with frogs and chase chickens around. We have an empty barn and an orchard and acres of meadow. We have a beautiful lake that freezes in the winter. When it snows, we can break out the skis and do some cross-country skiing from our back door. We've given up a lot to get here, but we've gotten so much back in return. There's money coming in from my new job, and I can finally get back to doing the things that I love (like writing) and spending time with my family when I'm not working. I miss making my own schedule, but that's life. There's always a compromise.

Next up: I will keep writing for my new Substack channel, working on my new submission platform, and start building out a 2.0 release of last year's NFT collection. The future is bright.

Meanwhile, in Ashland - more air quality problems from the latest wildfires. I really loved living on the West Coast but the summers were starting to get brutal—and the smoke just keeps getting worse.

About the Author


Krister Bjornson Axel

Ogdensburg, New York

Paris, France. Madison, Wisconsin. Los Angeles. Ashland, Oregon. Ottawa. I write music, I write about music, and I write code. See also: photography, prose, podcasting. I have 1 gorgeous wife, 2 amazing kids, and many interests.

Recent Awards: 2020 ND (Photo) Honorable Mention, 2020 Accenti Writing Contest Finalist